Tesla Motors opened its Beijing showroom in early November, and the company’s China-based website went live in December, allowing Chinese citizens to place deposits on the Model S and the yet-to-be-launched Model X. China’s luxury vehicle market is second only to the United States in sales, so Tesla should do well in meeting its goals to sell 5,000 PEVs in Asia annually. Tesla’s move to access the market is one of many to be made in coming years from global automakers looking to shop PEV technology in the country. While the adoption of PEVs anywhere is seen as a good thing for reasons both environmental and economic, in China’s case it may be a detriment.
In most regions, PEVs reduce emissions when compared to conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles on a per-mile basis. This is due to both the significant energy efficiency improvements of electric motors over conventional internal combustion engines, and increasing penetrations of cleaner burning fuels (natural gas) and renewable resources (wind and solar) to replace coal in the overall electric grid.
The Coal Factor
As PEV’s made their first sales in the United States, some questioned whether PEVs actually reduced emissions compared to conventional and/or advanced fossil fuel burning vehicle technologies, given the increased emissions stemming from PEV development over conventional vehicle manufacture and the mix of generation resources on the grid. Results of studies in the United States have shown that PEVs do reduce emissions over conventional vehicle technologies, but it depends on the mix of generation resources used to power the grid.
Though China has made significant advances in developing wind and solar power, the country’s grid is dirty, being predominantly powered by coal. While China is making strides in substituting cleaner fuels for power generation, the amount coal consumed will likely continue to climb as energy demand continues to grow. The EIA reported in 2011 that around 70% of China’s primary energy use stemmed from 4 billion short tons of coal, roughly half of worldwide coal consumption.
Contributing to the severe pollution problems, in no small part, is China’s escalating number of vehicles in use. In our report, Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts, Navigant Research estimates that in 2013 China has the second highest number of light duty vehicles in use, at more than 108 million. While the combustion of gasoline and diesel are still harmful to the environment – combustion of either fuel produces fewer emissions of CO2 and other harmful gases/matter per million BTUs produced than coal. Paradoxically, driving on electricity sourced from the coal-powered grid, rather than on advanced gasoline or diesel technologies probably worsens China’s dire pollution situation.
Though China promises to be a significant market for PEV automakers, it’s not quite apparent that PEVs will help the country reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Increased investment in natural gas and renewable resources for electricity generation, rather than coal, will make the potential environmental benefits of PEVs a reality. At the same time, emphasizing increasing fuel efficiency through hybrid gasoline and high mileage diesel vehicles purchases will be a tangible and certain way to reduce vehicle emissions and overall pollution.
Tags: Carbon Emissions, China, Clean Transportation, Electric Vehicles, Smart Transportation Program, Tesla Motors
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