Battery Sourcing Remains Crucial To Electric Automobiles' Viability

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By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009

Two big batteries stand side by side at the General Motors testing lab in Warren, Mich.

One is an artifact, built a dozen years ago. Weighing 1,200 pounds, it could fill the back of a large pickup truck. Standing on one end, it towers over GM's Robert A. Kruse, executive director of global vehicle engineering for hybrids and electric vehicles.

The other battery is new and produces the same amount of energy but is a relatively trim 400 pounds. It comes up just past Kruse's shoulder, and it will squeeze into the body of the compact Chevy Volt that GM plans to start producing next year.

"You can see the direction the technology is driving us," Kruse said.

But while battery technology has traveled far from the big clunkers in the late 1990s, the costs and limits of current batteries remain the biggest obstacles to mass marketing plug-in vehicles. Although nearly every major auto company is moving ahead with electric car plans, the batteries still cost about $8,000 or more each, experts estimate, and that could make electric cars money-losers. Moreover, electric carmakers warn, the industry's manufacturing capacity is limited, and few factories are in the United States.

Solving these problems could become more critical as President Obama pushes to toughen fuel-efficiency standards. Automakers are lobbying Congress for help establishing a battery industry in the United States.

In the House version of the big economic stimulus package, at least $2 billion -- half in spending and half in federal loan guarantees -- would go to promoting advanced battery technologies and manufacturing.

On Jan. 23, the entire Michigan congressional delegation sent a letter to President Obama urging him to support renewable-energy industries and electric-car batteries in particular. Lawmakers from the state have also implored the Energy Department to speed the release of money earmarked for fuel-efficiency research. "We cannot move from a dependency on foreign oil to a dependency on foreign-made technology," the letter said.

The issue for some is not whether battery development is needed, but whether it is the most cost-efficient means of reducing the nation's dependency on oil.

"You can heavily subsidize small volumes of electric cars and lightly subsidize high volumes, but you cannot heavily subsidize high volumes," said Menahem Anderman, chief executive of Total Battery Consulting. "The environment and energy security will benefit more if we had a million hybrids in the United States than 10,000 [electric vehicles], and technologically and economically this is more realistic."

For now, batteries represent the greatest obstacle to an electric car, said J.B. Straubel, chief technical officer at Tesla Motors, a small, Silicon Valley-based maker of all-electric luxury sports cars. "There is no question that we can make 10 million cars. The motors are not a problem. Power electronics the same. But with batteries, you're beyond the existing manufacturing base. You need to build a whole new industry to make the batteries, as big as the industry that is making the cars themselves."

According to Lux Research, a consulting firm specializing in emerging technologies, the electric-car battery market is projected to grow sixfold by 2013. About 70 percent of it will be lithium-ion batteries. Similar technology could become widespread in storing wind and solar energy for utilities, too.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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