Did you know that 50 percent of the scooters being sold in China today are electric? Or that electric bicycles are fast gaining huge market shares? Or that the country's socialist government -- and its entrepreneurial companies -- are signing contracts left and right to wire the country for electric cars and buses? All that means China is fast-tracking an EV (that's electric vehicle) infrastructure, and may get there before the U.S., Europe or Japan does. Good for them!
China is also promising to export EVs to the U.S., and that could spell trouble for American startups -- and for companies like GM as they launch the Chevrolet Volt (with its range extender gas-electric drivetrain).
Chinese automaker BYD ("Build Your Dreams") is the one to watch. It is rolling out its E6 electric sedan in the U.S. in 2010, a year ahead of schedule. I met BYD's European representative, Alex Zhu, in Iceland this week and he outlined a very impressive growth schedule. Launched in 1995, BYD has already become one of the biggest lithium-ion battery makers for portable electronics. It didn't make cars at all until 2005, but its president, Wang Chuanfu, recently announced that he wants the company to be number one in China by 2015 and number one in the world by 2025. Did you get that, GM?
Investor Warren Buffett already owns 10 percent of BYD (for which he paid $230 million) but he reportedly wants to buy up to 30 percent if Wang Chuanfu will let him. "[Buffett's] MidAmerican has always intended to raise its stake in BYD because it believes BYD has good prospects in the development of renewable energy, but we are still considering [whether to sell more]," he told Reuters.
A rendering of ECOtality's proposed factory in Tianjin, China. (ECOtality graphic)
China is also fast-tracking electric infrastructure. ECOtality President Jonathan Read called me from Shanghai, where he just signed $15 million in joint venture deals to train Chinese Shenzhen Goch Investment techs to build the company's electric vehicle charging stations in China. As he pointed out, China's socialist government means that if party officials want electric vehicles, they just order them built--and that's just what happened with 200 electric buses going into 13 cities.
Now they have to figure out how to recharge them--and the cars to follow. The Chinese live vertically, which means no garages and no overnight plug-ins. So the Chinese will adapt, with fast, 10-minute charging at the workplace, in malls and at entertainment venues. Private cars are stored in big garages (often a mile or more from their owners' homes) and those are likely to get equipped with chargers, too.
"China will be formidable in batteries and vehicles," Read told me. "And BYD is a very interesting player, a huge operation with hot and cold running engineers." I believed him on both counts.
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