The US is losing the EV battery race


IN RECENT months, a string of carmakers and electric vehicle (EV) battery producers have announced their intentions to build facilities in the US. Manufacturers from across the world are throwing around billions of dollars of investments into EV battery technology, too.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden has invoked the Defence Production Act, a Cold War-era provision to help increase the domestic availability of raw materials like lithium and graphite to boost battery manufacturing and reduce dependence on foreign supply chains.

“We need to end our long-term reliance on China and other countries for inputs that will power the future,” he said.

As promising as all this is, it’s unlikely to move the needle. The US has waited far too long to ramp up and prioritise the core of any electric vehicle strategy: Batteries and how to charge them.

For starters, factories won’t be up and running for a while, so they won’t be churning out power packs anytime soon. Capital isn’t being directed in a focused way, either.

Even with Biden kicking off a top-down, Beijing-style industrial policy, China is likely to stay well ahead in the battery race.

It’s also down to poor timing and planning. The hype around EVs has been present for a while. That’s pushed up demand and consumer awareness (think of all those EV advertisements during Super Bowl.)

Yet, only last June did the US release a blueprint for battery supply chain build-out to “help guide investments”.

Upstarts have been trying to crack the right technologies for a while now, and manufactures have been talking up big changes to auto-making for cleaner vehicles.

What’s worse, as US carmakers get desperate to make good on promises of investing billions of dollars in green cars to meet emissions regulation targets, they’re pressuring their Korean battery partners for technology.

Ironically, it’s a tactic often associated with China’s technology dominance goals, but it is also indicative of the lacklustre progress on development of viable and scalable power-pack options.

China, on the other hand, continues to hurtle toward making batteries for most electric vehicles in the world. It has cornered 60% of battery production.

Despite a faltering Covid-19 policy and supply chain delays, it’s been filling the growing gap between demand and supply.

Tesla Inc was able to churn out cars, export them across the world and open its Europe gigafactory because of a Chinese battery partnership and wide-scale manufacturing.

Other carmakers have turned to Chinese suppliers of parts and raw materials for energy storage. One of the world’s largest car companies, Volkswagen AG, recently signed agreements with Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Co and Tsingshan Holding Group to ensure supply of nickel and cobalt for 160 gigawatt hours of batteries.

Meanwhile, Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd is scouting out sites across North America for a US$5 billion (RM21 billion) plant.

It isn’t just about scale and China’s manufacturing heft, though. The world largest battery maker, CATL, has been working on a third generation battery with cell-to-pack technology that’s almost 13% more efficient than Tesla’s much-awaited 4680 battery in terms of space utilisation, according to Daiwa Securities Co analysts.

The company is also developing key thermal control technology, an important safety feature to ensure fires don’t spread in the latest types of power-packs which are prone to combustion.

If the US can’t lead on a key area of innovation now, it’s hard to say how the future for EVs will play out there.

The woes of the EV ecosystem have been compounded by a market imbalance and high raw material prices. That means it will only be harder to gather supplies and make affordable batteries.

Chinese officials, though, have already started talking about more collaboration across their supply chain to ensure manufacturing isn’t hit.

The US isn’t quite there yet when it comes to addressing this big — and likely prolonged — barrier because it doesn’t even have a robust supply chain.

What options does the US have now? Recreating everything from scratch may leave it further behind. Acknowledging that circumventing China won’t be an option in the near future would be a good place to start.

Channelling funds toward manufacturing and focusing on battery tech start-ups that are close to large-scale production could ensure a more streamlined approach for funding.

In addition, facilitating greater production from the few — and small — existing mines in the US may help integrate them into future manufacturing plans. Meanwhile, ensuring it can get a reliable supply of battery metals from its northern neighbour Canada — a current favourite for many manufacturers — would also help.

When it comes to electric vehicles and batteries, the US will have to move beyond flaunting billions of dollars of investments and ambitious plans if it really wants to get ahead. — Bloomberg

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.