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Electric transport dreams

China is engaged in a push to promote electric vehicles, which could promote the wider global adoption of the technology

But even if drivers can be weaned off gasoline, it will be years before China's electric cars can be said to be truly environmentally friendly, writes Ian Lewis.

The country is already the world's largest vehicle market in absolute terms, but the room for expansion remains vast. Estimates vary, but vehicle ownership probably stands at no more than 60 per 1,000 people – about half the global average and just a fraction of the 850 per 1,000 of the US. With the country anxious to staunch spiralling oil imports, the potential for rapid expansion of the electric-vehicle sector is attracting government support.

China plans to spend nearly $15bn on support for the uptake of environmentally friendly vehicles, including electric vehicles and smaller engine, longer mileage gasoline and diesel vehicles. In mid-2010, China launched a pilot scheme in five cities, where subsidies of up to $9,000 were available to buyers of electric cars, and lesser amounts for those buying more-economical, conventional cars. The government may be subsidising purchases of more than 4m energy-efficient vehicles by 2012, says the National Development and Reform Commission.

Plans are also in place to introduce new standards to regulate and build recharging infrastructure for electric vehicles – an area where China's more centralised economy may have an advantage over many Western countries, which have struggled to promote large-scale recharging networks. State-owned energy companies, including CNPC and CNOOC have been asked to help build the recharging network.

China is part of the International Energy Agency's (IEA) Electric Vehicle Initiative, launched in October. Under the initiative, eight countries – China, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the US – have agreed to launch pilot programmes in urban areas and share information. The IEA reckons collaboration could help put 20m electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on the world's roads by 2020, more than 200m by 2030 and 1bn by 2050.

But a big electric-vehicle fleet will have little impact on overall Chinese CO2 emissions until power-station emissions are significantly reduced – and this is unlikely to happen within the next two decades (see p23).

Chinese manufacturers are developing electric vehicles at lower cost than potential competitors in Japan, the US and Europe, but they have struggled to make serious in-roads in the domestic market, for much the same reasons that uptake has been slow in other parts of the world – a limited recharging infrastructure, limited range, a high price compared with conventional vehicles and inertia among buyers.

Shenzhen-based BYD unveiled its F3DM hybrid car in late 2008, calling it the world's first mass-market hybrid-electric vehicle. The Hong Kong-listed firm has attracted investment from Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, which has a 10% stake, and has aspirations to sell the car on world markets.

But BYD – which also builds electric buses, conventional vehicles and batteries – has suffered a sales slump recently and says it may not be able to deliver vehicles to the Californian market as soon as it had hoped. The F3DM has so far been available in only Shenzhen province – although there are plans for wider domestic distribution – and costs around $18,000 after deduction of the government subsidy.

Domestic competition is growing. Chinese manufacturer Geely, whose parent company bought Volvo from Ford earlier this year, wants to sell the Volvo C30 electric car in China. And there will be foreign competition, too – Nissan, GM and Honda plan to introduce their electric cars, the Leaf, Chevy Volt and Acura respectively, to China within the next three years.

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