Lawmakers Told US Needs Secure Supply Chain for Electric Vehicle Market

April 21, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Lawmakers Told US Needs Secure Supply Chain for Electric Vehicle Market
Venkat Srinivasan, director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science and deputy director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research.

WOODRIDGE, Ill. — U.S. policy on alternative fuel vehicles is at a turning point in the transition away from gasoline-powered engines, according to witnesses at a congressional hearing Thursday.

Delays in securing the metals and minerals to manufacture rechargeable electric motors are likely to mean China jumps in to take over the market, they said.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to discover and develop new electric vehicle technologies, said Venkat Srinivasan, a director of energy storage science at the Argonne National Laboratory.

Reaching the goal requires balancing manufacturing capacity, a skilled workforce and the need for critical metals and minerals, scientists and industrialists told lawmakers.

“The bad news is that our country does not have a secure supply to meet the demand,” Srinivasan said.

Minerals needed to manufacture long-lasting electric vehicle batteries include cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese and nickel. The small supply of them in the United States means prices for electric vehicles remain prohibitively high for most Americans.

At the moment, the United States is lagging far behind China and other countries in producing the minerals the industry needs, witnesses at the hearing said.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held the field hearing in the Chicago suburb of Woodridge, Illinois, as it seeks to determine additional government incentives that might help the electric vehicle industry.

Illinois is emerging as a preferred site for manufacturers of rechargeable batteries and other electric vehicle components.

“The gap is not just in the supply chain but extends into the workforce,” Srinivasan said.

He cautioned against any delays by the federal government in closing the competitive gaps.

“We should seize this moment to become the world’s leader,” he said.

One recent government effort to put the United States at the forefront of the emerging industry is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program called Mining Innovations for Negative Emissions Resource Recovery.

The U.S. Department of Energy described the program in a Feb. 24 announcement as a grant-funding opportunity to produce minerals used in electric vehicle batteries.

On March 31, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to boost U.S.domestic supplies of nickel, lithium, cobalt and other critical elements for rechargeable batteries.

The most critical mineral is the lithium used in lithium-ion batteries. They are energy dense, have long useful lives and produce high power compared with other batteries.

The U.S. Geological Survey says the biggest lithium deposits currently being developed are in Australia, Chile, China and Argentina.

Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., who chairs the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, said, “The whole world is reaching for their wallets” for the transition to electric vehicles.

Vehicle electrification is a key part of achieving Biden’s goal of net-zero emissions in the United States by 2050 and limiting global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that if global warming increases beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, the environmental consequences would be catastrophic.

In 2019, global sales of electric cars totaled 2.2 million, or 2.5% of global car sales, according to automotive industry figures. In 2020, electric vehicles accounted for 4.1% of car sales. In 2021, electric vehicle sales doubled again to 6.6 million, or nearly 9% of car sales.

Falling costs of lithium-ion batteries helped commercial growth of electric vehicles, according to a Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight report. Battery cell prices fell by 89% in the past decade.

The rise in sales also led to climbing demand for electric vehicle battery minerals. As a result, raw material prices are going up.

Although Foster expressed disappointment with U.S. supplies of the critical minerals needed for the batteries, he added, “I believe we can engineer our way out of this problem.”

One of the companies taking the lead in the engineering is California-based Rivian Automotive, Inc. It manufactures an electric sport utility vehicle and pickup truck with components that could be adapted to a wide range of vehicles.

Rivian Senior Director of Public Policy Chris Nevers urged government assistance to secure U.S. automotive industry access to the raw materials it needs.

“Market penetration will be limited by supply chain concerns,” Nevers said.

Tom can be reached at [email protected]

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