Batteries not included
Posted by Rich Sweeney on December 18, 2008
For some reason, we’ve reached a point in this country where no policy is supportable unless it promises to kill at least two birds with one stone. Even if an individual goal, like say mitigating climate change or boosting employment, is worthwhile on its own, we need to tie its solution to some other end before we’ll support it, even if the marriage reduces the policy’s effectiveness along both dimensions. As someone who’s clearly pro “green” (whatever that is) this has been my main problem with the green jobs movement. If jobs become an acceptable metric of climate policy success, we’re all in big trouble.
Which brings me to batteries. One of scarier shotgun marriages being tossed around liberal circles lately has been the green auto bailout. This is the idea that we can save Detroit by giving them money in exchange for their commitment to build a fleet of electric vehicles. The only problem is that they don’t currently know how to do that. Specifically, the battery technology is years away, while Detroit needs the money yesterday. But many of the true believers remain undeterred, suggesting that we can pay Detroit to build the car “shells” now, and store them until the batteries are ready. [I'll let you insert your own 5 year plan joke here.]
So I was already thinking about this today when Tmoney emailed me a Wall Street Journal article (sub. required) reporting on a consortium of US battery manufactures seeking $1 billion in US loans to manufacture batteries in the United States. Now I’m all for subsidizing R&D, but there were some unsettling justifications for the program subtly weaved into the narrative. It’s not that electric car batteries don’t exist, they just don’t exist at a competitive price. Tesla will gladly sell you an electric roadster for $100K. So you’d think that if we really want a fleet of electric cars, we’d be trying to get the batteries from the cheapest source available. Think again. The battery industry has largely migrated from the US to Asia over the past two decades because of cheaper costs and locational spillovers (where do all of your electronics come from?). But this loan would stipulate that all of the money be spent in the US, creating green jobs (there’s bird number two). There is also the vague warning from unspecified “experts” that “battery technology and manufacturing capacity could become as strategically important as oil is today” (and there’s the third bird, national security). I’m no battery expert, but I fail to see the parallels with oil, a geographically concentrated, finite natural resource.