China's Great Leap Forward on EV Charging: Moving Faster Than the U.S.?

Could China leap ahead of the U.S. in switching to electric transportation? Jonathan Read thinks so, and he's the president and CEO of Scottsdale, Arizona-based ECOtality, whose EV charging technology is being adapted globally. ECOtality subsidiary eTec is one of the recipients of a $99.8 million Department of Energy grant that will put 12,500 charging stations into five markets (along with 5,000 Nissan Leaf battery cars to plug into them).

Read called from Shanghai, China to tell me about his just-forged $15 million pair of joint ventures with Shenzhen Goch Investment, Ltd. Some $10 million will go to manufacturing and assembling ECOtality-derived EV charging equipment in China, and the other $5 million to marketing and selling the chargers there.

ECOtality will bring 15 Chinese engineers to Arizona for training (it helps that Read's son, the company's VP of corporate development, is fluent in Mandarin) and already has 50 employees of its own in China. The company is working on providing charging infrastructure for 200 Chinese buses that will be delivered in 13 cities in the next two years. "They mandated that they'd built and then asked, 'How are we going to charge them?'" Read said. The company is also working in Korea, and further announcements are forthcoming from there.

"China will be formidable in both batteries and vehicles," said Read, who is closely following the rise of Chinese battery/automaker BYD (10 percent owned by investor Warren Buffett, who may increase the stake for which he paid $230 million). The company's E6 battery car is headed for the U.S., and will be the first high-speed on-road EV in China, Read said. "BYD is a huge operation and an interesting player," he added. "They have hot and cold running engineers"--more than 10,000 of them.

A recent report from Pike Research, "Electric Vehicles on the Grid," says that EV charging will be a $1.9 billion industry by 2015, at which time China will be the world leader with 47.8 percent of total sales. That's not just for cars and buses--Read says that 50 percent of the scooters being sold in China are electric, and electric bikes are also becoming very popular. ECOtality is working on plug-in bicycle chargers to be integrated into locking bike stands.

Read said that EV charging is a challenge in China because the vast percentage of the population lives vertically in apartment buildings. "Cars in Shanghai are crammed into garages all over town," Read said. "Parking is at a real premium, and people park half a mile away from home--then take public transit." Charging stations in China are likely to be integrated into workplaces, entertainment venues, malls and small shopping centers. Fast charging will become a necessity there, because overnight plug-ins are unlikely to be viable.

Read said to expect an announcement soon about consolidation in the rapidly evolving world of EV recharging.