DOE’s Granholm drives campaign to make EV batteries a U.S. industry
Feb 28, 2024

DOE’s Granholm drives campaign to make EV batteries a U.S. industry

President Biden has ambitious goals for decarbonizing transportation and other sectors. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm says meeting those goals requires bringing the clean energy supply chain home.

A big part of Jennifer Granholm’s job as U.S. secretary of energy involves selling President Joe Biden’s clean energy agenda and convincing Americans that it’s benefiting them.

On Monday, she toured a facility near San Francisco operated by the company Cuberg, which was an early participant in an entrepreneurship program sponsored by the Department of Energy. The company is developing a lithium-based battery that would be less flammable than the ones we use today.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali sat down with Granholm to talk about how innovation in batteries fits into the Biden administration’s sweeping climate policy.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jennifer Granholm: We now have about 400 facilities that have announced that they are expanding in the battery and electric vehicle space alone in the United States. So instead of building anodes, or cathodes or separator material in Nanjing, China, we’re building them here. I just came from Moses Lake, Washington, which is a rural area in the state of Washington that has two new battery factories there that they are hiring people for making the components for batteries. It’s so exciting to see this is happening all across the country. People are being hired in forward-facing jobs and careers across the country as a result of [Democrats’ legislation].

Lily Jamali: You mentioned China. How much of this has to do with geopolitics?

Granholm: I think a lot of it has to do with making sure that we are strong as a nation, and you’re not strong if you’re relying upon other countries for your technology and for your energy future. And so, one of the I think geniuses of this 21st century energy strategy and industrial strategy is to really focus in the energy sector of bringing all of the supply chains home to the United States instead of ceding the territory. China has been very strategic. They have developed a whole bunch of five-year plans to be able to corner the market on these technologies. And so, we are approaching this from a step behind. But because of the incentives associated with the Inflation Reduction Act, we have become the irresistible nation for a lot of that supply chain. And if we can’t extract it or process it here, then we are partnering with allies to “friendshore” that technology so that we really have a coalition of countries whose values we trust and share, to be able to power our energy future in addition to making it here at home.

Jamali: Let’s talk about electrification because part of that is shoring up the supply chain for critical minerals. How are we doing on that front?

Granholm: Here’s the deal. China has about 90% of the critical minerals, materials, stuff that it takes to build an electric vehicle battery. So, we started by asking, what is the supply chain that we need, both critical minerals-wise as well as components of the supply chain? We need lithium, we need cobalt, we need silicon, we need graphite. Where can we get that? Where are the most common ones? And can we create substitute materials so that we’re not reliant upon other countries for that? And then can we responsibly extract here? And can we responsibly process here? So, the good news is that now, as a result of the Inflation Reduction Act, the projection is that we will increase our graphite supply by 25-fold, our lithium supply by 13-fold by 2030. So, it is working.

Jamali: Since you mentioned lithium among some of the others there, the big concern about mining lithium is just how invasive it can be, as mining is by its very nature. Is there anything you want to say to people who are concerned about the environmental impacts of that? Because right now, we have, I think it’s one active commercial lithium mine in the U.S. and there are 72 proposed projects in nine different states right now.

Granholm: Yeah, several points on this. One is we’re here talking in California. California has a huge potential capacity for lithium in the Salton Sea. In fact, the projection is that the capacity of lithium in the Salton Sea alone could power more, over 300 million vehicles, which is more than exists in the United States right now. And they do lithium from geothermal brines, which is a much more sustainable process. The second is that you can also get critical minerals from recycling batteries. So, the battery that’s in the cellphone that you’re holding in your hand can be recycled, and we can pull out the lithium from it through recycling. And we’ve invested in a lot of companies to do that. In fact, recycling batteries, whether it’s your laptop or your phone or your car, can provide 40% of the critical minerals that we need for electrification of the battery supply chain for electric vehicles. And then finally, I would say we also are partnering with other nations like Canada, like Australia, to be able to have critical minerals agreements too, because a lot of them do a lot of sustainable extraction already.

Jamali: So here in California, geothermal is very high on the agenda, but in a place like Nevada, there’s a lot of concern, for example, about water use and how much goes into lithium mining. Can you talk about that and just address environmental concerns on that front?

Granholm: The environmental concerns are real, and that’s why the next-generation practices of mining have to be incorporated and insisted upon in the revision of the mining laws. But even now, you can do that. You can have community-benefits agreements that ensure that there is sustainable and responsible extraction without damaging the resources. A lot of these mines are proposed on tribal lands and near sacred sites, and you know, you don’t have to run roughshod over the community, you can be partners and locate in sensitive and sensible ways. So, a lot of what we’re doing is really evaluating projects based upon whether they have a community-benefits agreement that addresses a lot of the issues that you raised.

Jamali: Let me ask you about flagging EV demand because that is a concern right now. Does that throw a wrench into your plans to try to go fully electric to the extent that we can in this country?

Granholm: Yeah, let me beg the question about flagging EV demand because the EV demand doubled last year. It is projected by Bloomberg New Energy Finance to increase 22% this year. So, EV demand is going up, and at the same time, we are making sure we’ve got charging stations in the ground. Part of the president’s agenda is, is to make sure we’ve got 500,000 charging stations, particularly in places where the private sector hasn’t installed them already, like on transportation corridors every 50 miles or in rural areas or in urban areas where you may have multifamily housing, etc. So one, we have to continue to press the accelerator on getting those EV charging stations in the ground, which addresses the range anxiety that many people might have before buying electric. And a lot of people don’t realize that these charging stations are going in all across the country. The projection is to have that 500,000 in by 2026. So, there will be hiccups along the way because people need to feel comfortable, but once they see these charging stations in and we continue to see the prices come down for new electric vehicles — now they’re on par with new internal combustion engines. And once you talk to your neighbors who have an EV and say I have an electric vehicle and I’m not going back, I think you’ll start to continue, you’ll see that continue to snowball.

Jamali: So, on demand, can we agree on “growing but slowing down”?

Granholm: I would say that the reason why there’s been some stories is that the automakers really projected a much faster growth than what the public was moving in. And so, it’s they that are ratcheting back a little bit, but it’s not the demand from the public that’s ratcheting back. It is continuing to accelerate.

More on this

My colleagues at the Marketplace podcast “How We Survive” did a deep dive on lithium mining for their first season.

They visited Southern California’s Salton Sea, which has been described as Palm Springs with water. As of 2021, there were already 11 power plants in the area using the geothermal technology the secretary mentioned in our interview. These plants use brine as a source of renewable energy and want to extract lithium from the brine they’re pumping.

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
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