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Late to the race, White House wants U.S. to become a leader in electric vehicles

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Biden administration has an ambitious plan to make the U.S. a leader in electric vehicles and the batteries that power them. The goal is to ensure that EVs make up more than 60% of new car sales by 2032. Key to success is securing the minerals and other materials needed for those batteries. And as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, the U.S. is coming late to the EV race.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The geopolitical race to dominate the lithium-ion battery is on. So far, China is far ahead of the pack. Andy Miller is with Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. He says those batteries can represent energy security for nations, much like oil.

ANDREW MILLER: If you want to move to solar, to wind, to any type of renewables, you need a way to store it. And the battery is the central component of that.

NORTHAM: China is the OPEC of batteries, says Steve LeVine, the author of "The Powerhouse." He says Beijing has long been strategic about acquiring the critical minerals needed to make them.

STEVE LEVINE: So that's meant making deals and buying lithium mines in South America, buying and contracting for cobalt in Democratic Republic of Congo or lithium in Australia and nickel in Indonesia. They've put together a map that brings all of the stuff to them.

NORTHAM: LeVine says China also dominates the refining of the raw minerals. The U.S., which considers China a strategic competitor, is lagging behind, but there are moves to change that. The Inflation Reduction Act is filled with tax incentives to boost the electric vehicle industry, but automakers need to show that 40% of the battery minerals come from the U.S. or its free-trade partners.

CULLEN HENDRIX: It's going to have to go out and, frankly, find new friends.

NORTHAM: Cullen Hendrix, a commodity specialist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says the U.S. may need to look elsewhere for lithium and the like.

HENDRIX: Countries with which it can kind of craft deals to make sure that it has access to the raw materials and, in some cases, the processed materials that are going to be necessary for feeding into this huge increase in domestic battery production capacity.

NORTHAM: Cullen says the U.S. has several large lithium deposits, including in Wyoming and Utah, but the permitting process to open new mines is lengthy compared to China. He says, even in Western countries like Canada and Australia, the permitting process would take two or three years.

HENDRIX: In the United States, that process could take up to a decade. And that's sort of the most optimistic kind of way of looking at it.

NORTHAM: And in the meantime, other countries are getting in the game - South Korea, Japan, even Sweden. A mega battery factory called Northvolt opened in northern Sweden in 2017. It was seen as a homegrown enterprise to help give the country energy independence. Anders Thor is Northvolt's communications director.

ANDERS THOR: We are the first homegrown producer of batteries in Europe and the first mass producer of batteries. When I joined 3 1/2 years ago, we had almost nothing, and now it's a factory producing batteries with 1,700 people.

NORTHAM: Thor says Northvolt is expanding rapidly through Scandinavia. There are plans for Europe and the U.S. He says the Inflation Reduction Act has created enormous interest among Northvolt's customers, and it may open its own battery production plant in the U.S. in the near future, which means the U.S. is still in the race when it comes to electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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