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What's missing from America's growing electric vehicle industry

Rivian wall charger
Emily Bollinger
A wall charger was on display at a Rivian test-drive event this fall outside the manufacturing plant in Normal.

Despite President Biden’s ride in an electric Hummer and Rivian’s massive stock market debut, a longtime industry watcher says the U.S. may not be ready for the electric vehicle revolution.

Author and journalist Steve Levine said what’s missing is a key part of the battery supply chain — the chemical process that turns metals like lithium and cobalt into electrodes and then the cells and packs that go into EVs like the ones being produced by Rivian in Normal.

China—through more than a decade of state investment—has near total control of that battery-metals processing space, Levine said. The U.S. has no foothold there, Levine wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, titled “America Isn’t Ready for the Electric-Vehicle Revolution.”

“We have a lot of battery plants going up. EV plants going up. But not the stuff that goes into it,” Levine said. “So we’re going to be in this very odd position of importing all of the strategic processed metals that go into our batteries from our chief technological rival: China.”

Due to tariffs, this could make American-made EVs more expensive at home and costlier to export, Levine said. And the growing American EV industry will be vulnerable to supply disruptions. That’s what happened with semiconductors (chips) this year because of the pandemic, which has slowed production at Rivian and many other auto manufacturers.

“Exactly what you’re seeing in the semiconductor space, that’s going to happen with batteries,” Levine said.

Bloomington-Normal is apparently a finalist community for a new Samsung battery plant that would be built near the Rivian plant. Samsung is Rivian’s battery supplier. State lawmakers recently passed a big incentives package for EV makers, potentially to help land Samsung.

Some in the battery industry seem to believe that because battery plants have been announced, materials suppliers will somehow appear to service them, Levine wrote in The New York Times. For now, there is no evidence to buttress this argument, he said.

“The way they are behaving, it’s like ‘Field of Dreams.’ If we build a battery factory, the supply chain will arrive. That isn’t how it’s going to be,” Levine said.

Rivian and Samsung should make the investment — and take the risk — to build out battery-metals processing capability in the U.S., he said. The U.S. may not have a lot of the raw metals needed to make batteries, he said, but it has a long history of EV ingenuity (including the invention of the five dominant lithium-ion battery formulations).

The federal government could also make that investment. It would take tens of billions of dollars, Levine said. The U.S. took a first step in that direction with the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill recently signed into law. It includes more than $7 billion in the supply chain for batteries, for producing critical minerals, sourcing materials for manufacturing, and even recycling critical materials without new extraction/mining.

Levine is the editor of The Electric, a newsletter that is focused on batteries and electric vehicles and is owned by The Information, an online technology publication. His most recent book is “The Powerhouse: America, China and the Great Battery War.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.