Can the United States overtake China in the business of making electric vehicles (EVs)?
That question seems to be on the minds of many people who recognize that EVs will play a prominent role in the U.S. economy and globally. Although EVs account for only a tiny share of the vehicles on the road, electrification is coming to cars, SUVs, pickups, and trucks, creating a path to a clean energy future.
Anyone who still thinks EVs are far off in the future ought to consider that a decade ago smartphones were a novelty. Today they’re commonplace.
How to compete with China’s heavily subsidized EV industry and prevent an erosion of U.S. leadership in auto technology is one of our nation’s most difficult challenges. China sold 1.2 million EVs in 2019, more than three times EV sales in the U.S.
Because thousands of jobs are at stake and Chinese dominance in the EV sector is a significant strategic issue, our government, labor and business leaders ought to mount a coordinated campaign to encourage auto companies to build EVs and their components in the U.S.
The auto industry knows that it must adjust to the coming electric future. General Motors recently announced that it will discontinue the production of internal combustion vehicles by 2035. And Ford says it plans to invest $22 billion in electric cars through 2025. Tesla, which leads the nation in EV sales, is expanding its EV battery and vehicle production, as are other companies. EVs eliminate tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. They’re also soon expected to have better performance, lower upfront costs, and reduced maintenance than today’s vehicles.
What’s more, the evidence shows that the environmental benefits gained from switching to EVs is greatest when the electricity used to charge them comes from zero-carbon sources, namely solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power. As an environmental engineer, I am proud of the excellent performance of U.S. nuclear plants. They provide nearly 55% of the nation’s emission-free energy, and many are located here in the Midwest.
With EVs, an accelerated start would get production rolling. Congress should throw its support behind President Joe Biden’s plan to produce a government fleet of EVs — more than 600,000 cars and trucks — and have the vehicles assembled in U.S. factories. Building the vehicles in this country, along with batteries, would create a projected 1 million jobs and help the United States regain world leadership in auto technology and production from China, which has catapulted into the world’s No. 1 producer of EVs, accounting for half of global EV sales.
Policies that support the transition to EVs should not be seen as a threat to the fossil-fuel industry, since oil will continue to be needed for aviation and industrial production. Instead, it’s an opportunity to ensure that America has a stake in the auto industry of the future and ensure that the jobs it will provide are American jobs. But if we don’t act with urgency now, those jobs won’t be American but, rather, Chinese.
As we protect our auto industry, we also need to ensure a secure supply of the materials needed for lithium-ion batteries and wind turbines, with less reliance on imports. Each EV battery requires 25 pounds of lithium, much of which comes from China. Astonishingly, there is only one lithium mine in the United States. Other lithium mines are expected to open, but the concern is that China can force battery prices to rise — or that it might curtail the export of lithium.
In 2010, China cut off exports of rare earth minerals to Japan during a dispute over access to the South China Sea. Then during tense trade negotiations with the U.S. two years ago, it threatened to use the same tactic again. We would be foolhardy to assume we can brush off such political blackmail, given the impact of the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s.
Right now, it’s important for EV production — and the U.S. auto industry — that Congress moves forward with measures to reform the mine-permitting process and facilitate the revival of mining in the U.S. Objective-based permitting would allow US mines to eliminate mineral imports by more than half, reduce the minerals trade deficit by $16 billion annually and increase employment.
In these extraordinary times, we can manage without many things, but U.S. auto production is not one of them.
Barry Butterfield, of Omaha, is a retired engineer and emeritus member of the American Nuclear Society.
Anyone who still thinks EVs are far off in the future ought to consider that a decade ago smartphones were a novelty. Today they're commonplace.
it's an opportunity to ensure that America has a stake in the auto industry of the future and ensure that the jobs it will provide are American jobs.