Congress Blog

Alternative battery technologies lessen US dependence on critical minerals

lithium ion storage batteries
Istock

The Biden administration is thankfully taking action to address the serious challenges facing our nation’s critical minerals supply chain and its link to batteries, which are critical to the clean energy transition. President Biden released plans to use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to encourage the domestic production of battery materials, and the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it will provide $3 billion in funding to advance battery production and recycling, as authorized in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). 

Unfortunately, getting in the way of the future success of these actions is the administration’s consistent favoritism for lithium-ion batteries over viable and commercially-available alternatives that rely on domestic materials and labor. Strengthening the supply chain for lithium is certainly critical to U.S. national security interests and emissions reduction goals, but it’s not a long-term answer. Policymakers should simultaneously support the development of alternative energy storage technologies that can be manufactured domestically with U.S. resources — alternative alternatives, so to speak. 

The reality is that it will be years before the U.S. can reliably and securely access the lithium and rare-earth minerals (let alone the refining capacity) to produce lithium-ion batteries at scale domestically. A new white paper from Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES) Forum shows we simply do not have the enough of these minerals and materials within our borders to meet consumer demand and electric vehicle (EV) adoption goals. The critical minerals needed to produce batteries for EVs come from China, which has signaled its willingness to embargo mineral exports to penalize countries like ours. The global scarcity of critical minerals — and the fact that the global supply of several of them is controlled by nations opposed to U.S. interests— presents a growing threat to U.S. energy security.

These findings are consistent with DOE’s own recent report on the domestic battery supply chain that identified “a real threat that U.S. companies will not be able to benefit from domestic and global market growth” for batteries, adding that “the U.S. risks long-term dependence on foreign sources of batteries and critical materials.”

It simply doesn’t make sense for U.S. transportation policy to replace foreign oil with foreign critical minerals. Policymakers can mitigate this problem by helping support and scale already-established domestic battery manufacturers that use alternative technologies. Iron flow batteries, for example, are a currently-viable form of long-duration energy storage that can be manufactured and sourced entirely within our borders. 

If the supply chain security reasons to diversify battery technologies aren’t convincing enough, then perhaps the jobs impact is. Directing some of these roles toward developing domestic manufacturing capacity will provide good-paying jobs for Americans in clean energy manufacturing, while reducing our reliance on foreign supplies of hard-to-get materials. This should be a no brainer for DOE, given its pledge to recruit 1,000 clean energy jobs through its new “clean energy corps.”  

What’s also concerning about the Biden administration’s consistent favoritism for lithium-ion batteries at the expense of viable, scalable alternatives is that it runs afoul of Congress’s intent in creating these new DOE programs in the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill. Notably, the language of the IIJA does not limit Sec. 40207(b) or Sec. 40207(c) to use for EVs or lithium-ion batteries. Each section is designed to support “advanced battery manufacturing,” and “advanced batteries” are defined as “a battery that consists of a battery cell that can be integrated into a module, pack, or system to be used in energy storage applications, including electric vehicles and the electric grid.”

Members of Congress are rightfully calling attention to this issue. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) conveyed in a letter to Secretary Jennifer Granholm in early April that “[m]ultiple battery technologies will be critical to ensuring the United States has a sustainable battery supply chain across all the necessary uses.”

Ensuring a consistent and strong supply chain for lithium is one important piece of the puzzle. Encouraging the manufacturing and scaling of commercially viable batteries for our grid that rely on materials that can be sourced and manufactured domestically is another. If the U.S. wants to safely transition to clean energy without being dependent on China and other geopolitical adversaries, then it should seek ways to innovate its way out of this dilemma by expanding domestic production and recycling capabilities.

Christine Harbin previously directed stakeholder relations for the U.S. Department of Energy and served as acting Senior Vice President for External Engagement the U.S. Export Import Bank. She’s currently the Vice President of External Relations at Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions.

Tags Biden domestic battery production EV batteries Joe Biden lithium

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more

Video

See all Video