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Taxpayers Stuck with Bill for Future Generations of Batteries in Electric Cars

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    The Chevrolet Volt's 16 kWh battery pack (Chevrolet)

Whether you like it or not, you are an investor in the electric vehicle (EV)  battery of tomorrow.

Late last week, the Department of Energy announced plans to spend $120  million to establish a major battery research center at the Argonne National Lab  outside of Chicago. The stated goal: to create a new “Manhattan Project” that  will develop an EV battery in the next five years that lasts five times as long  and costs one-fifth as much as current EV batteries.

And they say it’s all in the interest of national security.

The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) will become a think tank  for multiple government entities like the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory  in California, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington, in  addition to private companies like Dow Chemical and Johnson Controls. Even  General Motors is an affiliate – and likely future licensee of the  technology.

“The taxpayer is an investor, so what can we do that pays the investor back?  The answer is security – to do our best to use energy inside the boundaries on  our soil,” says Jeff Chamberlain, the deputy for development and demonstration  at JCESR. Chamberlain says the U.S. imports a billion gallons of oil per day.  But if even 5 percent of drivers switched to EVs, that could mean $100 billion  in battery purchases that would be powered largely by domestically produced  energy.

“The Chevy Volt sticker price is $40,000. If we can have a battery with five  times as much energy [as the one in the Volt] at even a third of the cost, then  those vehicles become cost competitive with gas vehicles. If they are  competitive on the lot, and they can save on costs to drive, people will buy  them,” says Chamberlain.

The plug-in hybrid Volt has a battery-powered range of 38 miles, while most  of the all-electric cars on sale today can go less than 100 miles per charge.  Only the Tesla  Model S can come close to the range of liquid fueled cars, travelling up to  265 miles between charges, but at a cost of $77,400, which is more than twice  the average price of a new car today.

“Batteries have made their way into every form of our life,” adds Amy  Francetic, an executive director of the Clean Energy Trust based in Chicago, a  business accelerator that helps transfer government research to industry. “Any  time [something] is critical to our way of life, or an advancement of industry,  it should be the role of the US government. It is hard to make those  advancements without the US government."

Still, experts in the automotive industry and materials science research are  wondering why the US government is sponsoring such a massive research  effort.

“This is the definition of a money hole,” says Rob Enderle, an analyst who  has studied battery innovations. “They aren't going to the Moon, they are just  making something that exists better and setting goals that can't be achieved in  a reasonable time.”

Enderle says a better plan would be to focus on a specific goal, such as  figuring out how to improve the energy grid for charging a growing number of  EVs, or to invent a new wireless charging technology so the electric cars of the  future don’t have to literally plug-in.

Ozzie Zehner, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley STSC and the author of "Green  Illusions," says the main problem with funding government labs for electric car  research is that the U.S. should look for entirely different green initiatives  to fund, and to stay out of the EV market.

“Both the National Academies and, more recently, the Congressional Budget  Office, have found no benefit to the environment from subsidizing electric  cars,” Zehner says, arguing that taxpayer money could be wasted.

Chamberlain counters the argument about misplaced funds by pointing out that  even the largest U.S. companies do not have massive supercomputers, linear  accelerator labs (like the one in Stanford), or a staff of what will eventually  become about 120 researchers at JCESR.

The only other non-government entity to have that many materials science  researchers? The Toyota Motor Company, which likely has a staff of about 100  researchers in Japan developing new battery technologies for imports, says  Chamberlain. The company’s Prius hybrid is the best-selling electrified car of  all time.

Francetic says that the automakers do have research teams dedicated to  developing new battery technologies for EVs, but not at the level of basic  physics – which requires a team of materials science experts and cooperation  between government labs and private industry. “Physicists are behind inventing  battery science, manufacturers are behind manufacturing,” she says.

Toyota, Ford and GM declined to comment on the new research center. “We're  not in a position to comment about this yet,” says Alan Hall, a spokesperson for  Ford.

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