Seth Fletcher on Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy (Podcast)

TreeHugger: However, the manufacturing of these batteries is something that we could be doing here in the US, or it will ultimately get outsourced overseas. Do you want to see the US building these advanced batteries?

Seth Fletcher: Yeah. Because it's a good source of jobs, and it's smart to keep them in the country. We-not just in the US but in the West in general, Europe and the UK-have a kind of unfortunate history of inventing a lot of really interesting battery technologies, some of which are widely used today, and then never commercializing them, and leaving that to Japanese companies. And then that's been spun out to Korean companies and Chinese companies.

If Japan, Korea, and China end up dominating the manufacture of automotive-grade lithium-ion batteries-which they currently do-if they continue to, we'll be able to get batteries; we'll just be buying them from overseas. That's OK. We can still get a lot of electric cars on the road that way. But in terms of just building jobs and keeping money in the United States, it would be fantastic if we actually took advantage of it this time and stimulated the growth of a domestic lithium-ion battery industry.

The other reason to do that, just from a purely practical standpoint, is that if the cars are manufactured in America-the Nissan Leaf is going to be manufactured in Tennessee eventually-the batteries need to be manufactured close to the cars because they're so big and they're delicate and they're expensive. It doesn't make much sense to ship a 400 or 600 or 800-pound battery from Korea when we could build it in Michigan or Indianapolis or Tennessee and just truck it to the plant. Just makes a lot more sense to keep it here if we can.

TH: How good a job is our government doing right now to keep that sort of industry here in the States?

Fletcher: The Obama administration did about everything that the battery industry asked them to do. Well, let me maybe rephrase that a little bit. In the book, I talked to this guy, James Greenberger, who's the head of NAATBatt, this industry advocacy group for North American advanced battery manufacturers. And the way he tells it is, he got a call from Rahm Emanuel's office, and they were putting together the stimulus. They said, "How much money do you want?" And he said he was kind of joking and said, "two billion dollars." And then, lo and behold, that was what was in the stimulus package was about $2.4 billion for advanced battery manufacturing and clean-energy cars.

So, the Obama administration did that. And that money has been spent, and it's already being put to use. Factories are opening. A123 opened a factory in Livonia, Michigan, last fall. EnerDel is expanding. Johnson Controls is expanding. A lot of these factories are opening. But the thing is that that was just a one-time shot in the arm. I think everybody understood that from the beginning. But the situation in Washington right now is tough. It's going to be really tough to get much more support. So it's going to be up to that industry to crank it out and learn to exist on its own merits now.

And the government is also doing a good job of supporting electric cars through subsidies. A $7,500 tax credit. There are good state tax credits. There are charging infrastructure tax credits. But that's not going to last forever, and I think that the domestic battery industry understands that it has to grow under its own power now that the stimulus funding has come and gone.

TH: From an environmental point of view, how many electric cars do we need on the road to make a meaningful difference?

Seth: The short answer is: a lot. And it's going to take a long time. The Electrification Coalition, which is an advocacy group, released a report a couple years ago. And according to this report, if by 2040, 75 percent of all miles driven in the United States are powered by electricity, then oil consumption in the light-duty fleet will drop from about nine million barrels a day (that's the levels now) to about two million. But that's a lot of cars. There are 300 million cars on the road right now. The Obama administration's goal is a million electric vehicles by 2015. That's considered doable but really ambitious. So it's going to take a long time. That doesn't mean it's not worth doing, of course, because if we don't start, it'll never happen.

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles | Energy | TreeHugger Radio | Ultra Capacitors

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