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Why the new U.S. battery industry is still struggling

One of the more intriguing—and controversial—parts of the 2009 stimulus bill was a $2.4 billion provision to kick-start a domestic battery industry in the United States. As Michael Grunwald described in his book, “The New New Deal,” the Obama administration was hoping that these battery funds could help make the widespread adoption of electric cars a reality:

Intriguing. But who’s going to buy this stuff? (Pablo Martinez Monsivais-AP)

The battery effort was one of the most ambitious stimulus programs, positioning the United States as a major player in a twenty-first-century manufacturing industry almost overnight, repatriating lithium-ion technologies that were invented in America but had followed the consumer electronics business to Asia.

Before the Recovery Act, the U.S. had a chicken-and-egg problem: Nobody wanted to build or buy electric cars because the batteries were too weak and expensive, and nobody wanted to try to make better and cheaper batteries because nobody wanted to build or buy electric cars. But now 30 stimulus-funded factories are creating a supply chain that could support half a million plug-ins by 2015. Battery packs aren’t easy to import—the Volt’s weighs more than a washer-dryer—so if plug-ins are going to be made in America, batteries probably have to be as well. And if plug-ins are going to be popular in America, batteries have to get much cheaper…

Fast forward three years. Those battery factories do exist. But many of them are now running idle. The problem? Electric cars have been much slower to take off in the United States than anticipated, which means that the supply of batteries in the United States has vastly outstripped demand. Kevin Bullis of MIT’s Technology Review passes along this chart from the consulting firm Advanced Automotive Batteries:


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