During a recent telephone meeting of the NAATBatt Strategic Planning Committee, one committee member noted that the next stage of the COVID-19 stimulus package was likely to include investments in national transportation infrastructure. The committee member suggested that NAATBatt advocate for allocating part of those new investment to building up the lithium battery supply chain in the United States.
I have argued in this column on many occasions that lithium-based battery technology is one of the most important technologies of the 21st Century. Countries that control that technology will have the inside track on leadership in the development and manufacture of the myriad of devices–from cars, to aircraft, to IoT monitoring devices, to devices we cannot even imagine today—that will run on electricity unattached to a fixed electricity grid. Those devices will be the technologies that most clearly distinguish the 21st Century from 20th Century. The nations that control those technologies will control the lion’s share of worldwide wealth creation in this century.
Today, the United States is affirmatively losing the worldwide race to dominate lithium-based battery technology. This is a long-term problem for U.S. economic development. Investing in a robust domestic industry for the production of advanced battery technology would unquestionably be in the national interest.
But the real question that NAATBatt will have to answer in the coming weeks is not whether investing in lithium battery infrastructure is a good idea, but why making that investment now as part of a COVID-19 stimulus package is appopriate. Building a robust industrial infrastructure to support lithium battery manufacture in the United States would involve a decade long program of investments. But the COVID-19 crisis is about the here and now. Any related stimulus program needs to focus on a single objective: How do we make sure that the rebound from the economic shutdown is as immediate and as sharp as possible.
The answer is by stimulating the purchase of capital goods. Theoretically, it could be by purchasing just about anything that puts Americans back to work. But if purchasing things is what we need to do, why not purchase things that will result in the longer term private investments in lithium battery infrastructure that the United States so desperately needs?
A nationwide program to purchase electric vehicles powered by lithium-based batteries made in the United States is exactly the kind of investment that would provide both short-term economic stimulus and long-term private investment in critical lithium battery infrastructure. Updating the vehicle fleets of public bodies, such as transit authorities, school districts, cities, states and government agencies with electric vehicles would generate a huge number of high paying American jobs and an even larger environmental dividend.
But we must not repeat the mistake of 2009. If American taxpayers are going to devote money to purchasing electric vehicles, those vehicles must be made in America by American workers and, most importantly, powered by lithium batteries designed and made in the United States. If government can provide that stimulus, and that assurance, the private sector can do the rest. That is the best way to support a rapid economic recovery and long-term investment in critical U.S. infrastructure.