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How China built the world’s biggest EV charging network - and left the US far behind

The car is undoubtedly an American icon, and so too — in its own way — is the humble gas station. There’s the one in California’s Central Valley where James Dean made a last stop to refuel before his death — hard to miss, with its towering cutout sign of Dean in his classic pose. There’s the now-retired station in northern California, built from a giant redwood in the 1930s, the Citgo sign blazing over Boston’s skyline, the Pops station in Arcadia, Oklahoma where you can get gas — and 700 different types of soda. The list is long.

On the other side of the world, in China, the car is a relatively new passion — bicycles ruled the roads in major cities as recently as the 1980s — and there is decidedly less attachment to the gas-guzzling era and all its trappings. That helps explain why last year, nearly 4 million electric vehicles (EVs) were sold in China — quadruple the U.S. figure. And those cars came with 37,000 gleaming new charging stations, all across the country, each carrying multiple chargers. The boom in chargers has helped drive the boom in China’s EV industry itself, and it’s just getting started.

As with airports, roads and high-speed rail lines, China has been able to build this new wave of infrastructure at lightning speed. The charging station boom has helped assuage drivers’ “range anxiety” — the concern about dying batteries ruining long trips.

“Aside from the number of products and the competition in China, the fact that people don’t think about where they need to charge … that’s done so much,” Tu Le, the managing director of Sino Auto Insights, told Grid. “The anxiety or the doubt is one of the big hurdles that the U.S. automakers need to help buyers overcome.”

China’s charging stations are a symbol not only of the country’s potential to dominate the global electric car industry but also are a reminder of the challenges facing the U.S. as it looks to meet its climate goals and play one more game of crucial industrial catchup with China.

Charging ahead — China’s record-breaking infrastructure rollout

Just a decade ago, there were fewer than 30,000 public chargers in all of China; now, hundreds of thousands of are being built every year.

Even by the standards of Chinese infrastructure growth, it’s a fast turn. China’s electric vehicle charging alliance recently reported that in 2022, 650,000 public chargers were built, bringing China to a total of 1.8 million. In Guangdong province alone, there are 383,000; that’s more than double the number of public chargers in the entire United States.

China also installed 2.6 million private home chargers last year — but it’s the increasingly dense network of public charging stations that’s a game changer for China’s EV drivers, given that more than 900 million people live in urban areas. Most of these people don’t live in single-family homes, and many lack their own parking spot, so installing a home charger is out of the question.

The country is leading the charge, so to speak, by another key metric: the speed of charging. Conventional car drivers typically need only five minutes to fill their gas tanks; for electric cars to break through, it’s critical for companies to cut down charging time as much as possible. Within China’s public charging fleet, 40 percent are “fast chargers” — well above the share in other countries. The speed varies, but at the top end, these chargers allow you to be on your way again after just 20 minutes, as opposed to charging overnight on a slow charger.


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