The Washington Post
July 14, 2010

Obama's 'battery story' has yet to put a charge in the American public.

After struggling to connect with voters on the economy over the last 17 months, President Obama is casting an unlikely hero as the new star of his narrative of redemption and recovery: the battery.

Obama is flying to Michigan on Thursday to attend the groundbreaking of an electric battery company that received $151 million in federal stimulus funding. It will mark his fourth battery-related trip as president, coming as the White House makes an aggressive push to tell what one senior official called "the battery story": the tale of a small piece of technology that could affect daily life and spur employment if properly nurtured.

Obama's grand vision for the battery -- specifically, the advanced batteries that power plug-in hybrid and electric cars and trucks -- is that it can become a new industry that both weans the United States off oil and provides a new manufacturing backbone.

The problem, however, is that the battery story has yet to occur, and might never. For now, it is just a promise. Skeptics argue that there will be insufficient demand for advanced batteries to sustain the U.S. factories now being built, and that such batteries are already being expertly produced abroad.

"The battery story is highly questionable," said Menahem Anderman, founder and chief executive of Total Battery Consulting, who estimates that the global capacity to build car batteries in 2014 will be three times greater than the demand that year. "Basically, there's really no proven market, neither electric vehicle nor plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. And there's really no battery company in the United States that has a verified product."

Meanwhile, Obama has tried telling this story before -- in trips to North Carolina, Massachusetts, Missouri and California -- but it has yet to capture the public imagination.

White House officials are hoping that changes this week, as they stage events in at least seven states to highlight jobs created by the electric vehicle industry, as well as a new Department of Energy report on the effectiveness of the Recovery Act, which devoted $2.4 billion to advanced battery production.

In a conference call Wednesday arranged by the White House, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) said that 62,000 battery industry-related jobs would be created in her state, 400 of them at the Compact Power plant in Holland, Mich., that Obama is visiting. Another 300 or so jobs in construction will be created in order to build the plant, administration officials said.

It is a compelling plot, in Obama's view. "Just a few years ago, America had the capacity to build only 2 percent of the world's advanced batteries for electric and hybrid cars and trucks," the president told an audience at a recent fundraiser for Senate candidate Robin Carnahan in Missouri. "Today, thanks to our policies, thanks to a new focus on clean energy and the work taking place at plants like Smith Electric, in five years we could have as much as 40 percent of the world's capacity to build these batteries -- 40 percent. That means jobs right here in Missouri. It also means we're developing the expertise in a sector that is going to keep building and growing and innovating far into the future."

Yet Anderman, the battery expert, estimates that by 2015 the U.S. share of the world market will be no more than 10 percent. He notes that five Japanese and two Korean companies are years ahead of U.S. firms in manufacturing experience and research.

"The stimulus money was supposed to support something on order of 300,000 plug-in hybrid batteries a year by 2013," Anderman said. "If GM can hold to its number, the market in the United States will be in the 40,000 range. And most of [the batteries for] it will come from an LG Chemical factory in Korea.

"I'm in the industry and want to see the industry succeed," Anderman added. "There was just a lack of synchronization between the status of the technology and the rushing out to build plants. " He said he fears that the drive could ultimately boomerang politically if many of the plants fail.

Written by Anne E. Kornblut and Steven Mufson