China’s EV boom at crossroads with battery safety

Semafor Signals

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Insights from Sanlian Lifeweek Magazine, China’s Technical Committee on New Energy Battery Recycling, and Neo-Consumption

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A deadly apartment block fire in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing has reignited debate about the safety of e-bike batteries after early investigations suggested the blaze began where the mopeds were stored.

While it remains unclear whether any bikes were plugged in at the time of the fire, the incident has taken the internet by storm, firing new conversations about the safety of batteries used in e-bikes, commonly known as “e-mules” in China. Major EV battery manufacturers like FinDreams — a subsidiary of Chinese EV giant BYD — have already said they will be improving battery safety to ensure their products do not cause explosions.

In China’s EV boom, e-mules remain the most popular new form of personal transportation for the country’s middle class. But the immense demand is also raising important safety considerations, including the environmental impact of EV batteries.


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Who is to blame: the building, EV manufacturer, or driver?

Sources:  Sixth Tone, Sanlian Lifeweek Magazine, CCTV

State media, independent outlets, and WeChat bloggers immediately began pointing fingers at who should be held responsible for the fire. With at least 350 million e-bikes registered in China (around one for every person), e-bikes are among the most popular forms of transportation, but they are “associated with cheap but subpar batteries, particularly in a country where demand is now outpacing current safety regulations,” experts told cultural news site Sixth Tone. Despite existing national safety regulations, many EV manufacturers continue to reuse older batteries in their models to keep costs down. Often e-bike owners in China modify their bikes to run faster and longer, according to the culture-focused Sanlian Lifeweek Magazine, and these DIY-rigs can make vehicles more susceptible to explosions. But “property management assumes the ultimate responsibility,” state broadcaster CCTV argued. It said that knowing the surge in e-bikes, buildings should adopt adequate charging stations with adaptable voltages for different bike types, and fire prevention features like sprinklers should be tested frequently.

EV boom is leading to battery recycling headache

Sources:  Bloomberg, Technical Committee on New Energy Battery Recycling

China’s EV boom is leading to an unwelcome environmental consequence: Its underdeveloped battery recycling program is unable to process thousands of used batteries teeming with potentially toxic chemicals. The battery recycling vacuum has created a thriving gray market of smaller battery-recycling firms willing to pay higher prices for spent batteries, with China’s Energy Conservation Association estimating that unregulated operators currently make up about a fifth of the market. These players “undermine the credibility of China’s recycled batteries” because they do not adhere to environmental regulations, lacking safety equipment needed to minimize explosions and the release of toxic chemicals, Bloomberg reported. But the solution isn’t as easy as helping these companies meet regulatory requirements. So-called first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai have bans on new, high-emissions projects, and even regulated battery processing is still considered a highly-polluting industry, according to China’s Technical Committee on New Energy Battery Recycling.

Consumers favor practicality over innovative bikes

Sources:  ES Group, The China Project, Neo-Consumption

With adaptability for both rural and urban settings, e-mules are expected to reach a market size of $12.5 billion by 2025, according to vehicle analytics firm ES Group. The lucrative industry has seen manufacturers like NIU try to entice new, younger customers with bells and whistles options, such as smartphone integration, touchscreen displays, and detachable batteries, according to the China Project. But “consumers will not buy products because of [smart features],” one commerce consultant told Neo-Consumption, a consumer WeChat blog. Chinese youth consumers are ultimately more concerned about the affordability and reliability of e-mules, and while features like smartphone integration “are a plus,” these bikes are the ones with record-breaking sales, the consultant said.