A Tesla Model S car driving through the streets of Beijing. Image: Warren Whyte, Wikimedia.

Tesla and China Unicom Plan to Build 400 Electric Car Charging Stations


On August 29th, Tesla Motors of Palo Alto, California, announced a joint venture with China’s phone carrier Unicom to build electric car charging stations throughout China. Tesla entered the Chinese market in April this year with Model S sedans in Shanghai and Beijing.

China Unicom will provide space for construction and basic services for 400 stations in 120 cities while Tesla will operate the stations. Plans also include building "supercharger stations" in 20 cities to offer high-speed charging.Tesla’s China spokeswoman Peggy Yang states that the charging services will be free and restricted to Tesla vehicles only. The joint partnership is part of Tesla’s commitment to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on an electric vehicle (EV) charging network in China. Previously, Tesla had deals with Chinese property developers such as Soho China Ltd and China Yintai Holdings Ltd to build charging stations. There are currently 200 Tesla charging stations in China.

The Chinese government wants to develop an EV industry in order to combat air pollution and, in 2009, set an ambitious goal to sell 500,000 EVs by 2015. However, lackluster sales forced the government to lower its quota. There are about 78,000 EVs on the road in China today, most in the form of public buses and taxis.

So far, government incentives to promote EVs in China have not been enough to compensate for the lack of charging stations. Most residents in China do not have private garages and cannot charge their cars at home. Public charging stations are limited, especially outside city centers.

In July of this year, Beijing city authorities published an action plan to build 10,000 charging facilities by 2017. Considering the Chinese consumers’ preference for foreign automakers, US companies are in a unique position to cash in on the Chinese government’s EV push. US clean energy companies and automakers may be able to conduct partnerships similar to the Tesla-Unicom agreement to build other EV charging networks. For example, earlier this month the University of California Davis signed a memorandum of understanding with the China Automotive Technology and Research Center to establish a joint research lab on EV technology.

Not only is Tesla contributing to China’s infrastructure, but the company is also creating jobs at home. On September 4th, Tesla announced it would build a new battery factory in Reno, Nevada. The new factory in Reno will create about 6,500 jobs and lead to less expensive EVs. Reducing overall cost of the cars, in conjunction with the new charging network in China, will likely further grow Tesla’s sales to Chinese consumers.

Melissa Newcomb recently graduated from American University SIS and is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C.