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All Electric, All American

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author photo by Autotrader February 2011

While the new crop of plug-in electric cars may use electricity that is almost always produced locally – bypassing a gas car’s heavy use of imported oil – they raise questions instead of where their large batteries are built and where those batteries’ basic components are mined.

Due to the luck of the draw, the vast majority of basic battery materials comes from places such as China and Bolivia, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. These include lithium for lithium-ion batteries, as well as other metals that are hard to mine.

Even though these materials come from elsewhere, the United States is about to become a hotbed for car battery manufacturing, thanks in large part to more than $4 billion in federal grants and loans. With over eight facilities under construction or already built, the nation is on track to produce enough batteries for several hundred thousand electric cars per year by 2015.

A few of these facilities exist already, including A123 Systems in Livonia, Michigan, and EnerDel in Indianapolis. Given the current scarcity of electric vehicles on the road, those plants cannot survive right now by building only car batteries, so they have been producing things like battery backups and batteries for power tools. But with President Obama’s stated goal of getting 1,000,000 electric vehicles on American roads by 2015, lucrative federal incentives, and dozens of manufacturers entering the electric car arena, the demand for large batteries is about to heat up. It’s the wild west for battery manufacturing land-grabs.

Batteries for the two plug-in electric cars currently available in the States – the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf – are made in Korea and Japan. But once two new American facilities are finished some time in 2012, both vehicles will employ batteries made in the USA. The Volt’s will be built at a facility in Holland, Michigan, by Compact Power, an LG subsidiary. The Leaf’s will be built at a new Nissan plant under construction right next to the Smyrna, Tennessee factory where the car will also be produced from 2012.

For everything from Navistar’s eStar all-electric two-ton commercial truck to Ford’s upcoming Focus Electric, various home-grown battery producers are set to become the exclusive suppliers for electric vehicles built in America. And if those vehicles take off like many expect, this industry could become the next great American manufacturing base.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
All Electric, All American - Autotrader