Opinion: U.S. must jump on EV-market bandwagon

J. Winston Porter

We are living in the age of the lithium-ion battery. This remarkable device powers our smartphones and plays a key role in electric vehicles (EVs), both in America and overseas.

Two million EVs were sold in 2018, up from just a few thousand less than a decade ago. That number could jump to more than 50 million per year by 2040. The OPEC oil cartel expects 300 million EVs on the world’s roads by then.

The battery build-out essential to supplying EVs is a good indication of what’s coming. Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, a consultancy focused on the battery supply chain, reports that enough battery factory projects are in the pipeline to supply 24 million to 26 million EVs.

In other words, EVs may be a key technology of the near future. It remains to be seen which countries and automakers come to dominate electric cars remains to be seen.

China leads the industry in production of lithium-ion batteries, Porter writes.

Despite its manufacturing prowess, China and Chinese companies have had little success breaking into the global car market. But EVs are the opportunity they have been waiting for, and China’s industrial policy has given these companies a leg up.

China is dominating the lithium-ion battery production. According to Benchmark, of the 70 large battery factories in the pipeline 46 are in China and five are in the States.

China’s dominance is underpinned by its dominance of the mineral supply chain essential to battery manufacturing.

Chinese companies own or have interests in lithium, cobalt, graphite, copper and nickel mines all over the world. These minerals and metals are the very building blocks of lithium-ion batteries.

As Simon Moores, managing director of Benchmark, told the U.S. Senate earlier this year, “We are in the midst of a global battery arms race in which the U.S. is presently a bystander.” The U.S. is being outcompeted, and the stakes of this competition for dominance of the clean energy economy are substantial.

Getting serious about the supply chains for advanced energy technologies, particularly batteries, could mean getting serious about reinvigorating mining in the U.S.

While our import reliance on rare earth minerals has gotten a lot of attention, our import reliance for a host of other minerals — including those essential to battery manufacturing, has not.

For three of the key minerals in lithium-ion batteries — lithium, cobalt and graphite — the U.S. is almost completely import reliant. There is one operating U.S. lithium mine which meets just 1% of this country’s needs.

Fortunately, bipartisan support is building to bring commonsense reform to very difficult mine permitting. The American Mineral and Security Act would go a long way toward fixing the broken system and has made it through the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., it deserves bipartisan support to become law.

The U.S. must reform its industrial policy and prepare for the changes of tomorrow in a highly competitive world, or risk becoming buyers of essential technologies when we should be producers.

Addressing our mineral supply chain is an essential step in getting our industrial policy on track before it’s too late.

J. Winston Porter is a national energy and environmental consultant in Atlanta. Earlier, he was an assistant administrator of the EPA in Washington, D.C.