Gabriele Stabile/Cesuralab for The New York Times.
You can drive almost anywhere in the state of Michigan — pick a point at random and start moving — and you will soon come upon the wreckage of American industry. If you happen to be driving on the outer edge of Midland, you’ll also come upon a cavern of steel beams and ductwork, 400,000 square feet in all. When this plant, which is being constructed by Dow Kokam, a new venture partly owned by Dow Chemical, is up and running early next year, it will produce hundreds of thousands of advanced lithium-ion battery cells for hybrid and electric cars. Just as important, it will provide about 350 jobs in a state with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates.
Over the last two years, the federal government has doled out nearly $2.5 billion in stimulus dollars to roughly 30 companies involved in advanced battery technology. Many of these might seem less like viable businesses than scenery for political photo ops — places President Obama can repeatedly visit (as he did early this month) to demonstrate his efforts at job creation. But in fact, the battery start-ups are more legitimate, and also more controversial, than that. They represent “the far edge,” as one White House official put it, of where the president or Congress might go to create jobs.
For decades, the federal government has generally resisted throwing its weight —and its money — behind particular industries. If the market was killing manufacturing jobs, it was pointless to fight it. The government wasn’t in the business of picking winners. Many economic theorists have long held that countries inevitably pursue their natural or unique advantages. Some advantages might arise from fertile farmland or gifts of vast mineral resources; others might be rooted in the high education rates of their citizenry. As the former White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers put it, America’s role is to feed a global economy that’s increasingly based on knowledge and services rather than on making stuff. So even as governments in China and Japan offered aid to industries they deemed important, factories in the United States closed or moved abroad. The conviction in Washington was that manufacturing deserved no special dispensation. Even now, as unemployment ravages the country, so-called industrial policy remains politically toxic. Legislators will not debate it; most will not even speak its name.
By almost any account, the White House has fallen woefully short on job creation during the past two and a half years. But galvanized by the potential double payoff of skilled, blue-collar jobs and a dynamic clean-energy industry — the administration has tried to buck the tide with lithium-ion batteries. It had to start almost from scratch. In 2009, the U.S. made less than 2 percent of the world’s lithium-ion batteries. By 2015, the Department of Energy projects that, thanks mostly to the government’s recent largess, the United States will have the capacity to produce 40 percent of them. Whichever country figures out how to lead in the production of lithium-ion batteries will be well positioned to capture “a large piece of the world’s future economic prosperity,” says Arun Majumdar, the head of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The batteries, he stressed, are essential to the future of the global-transportation business and to a variety of clean-energy industries.
We may marvel at the hardware and software of mobile phones and laptops, but batteries don’t get the credit they deserve. Without a lithium-ion battery, your iPad would be a kludge. The new Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf rely on big racks of lithium-ion battery cells to hold their electric charges, and a number of new models — including those from Ford and Toyota, which use similar battery technology — are on their way to showrooms within the next 18 months.
This flurry of activity comes against a dismal backdrop. In the last decade, the United States lost some five million manufacturing jobs, a contraction of about one-third. Added to the equally brutal decades that preceded it, this decline left large swaths of the country, the Great Lakes region in particular, without a clear economic future. As I drove through the hollowed-out cities and towns of Michigan earlier this year, it was hard to tell how some of these places could survive. Inside the handful of battery companies that I visited, though, the mood was starkly different. Many companies are working on battery-pack designs for dozens of car models. At the Johnson Controls factory in Holland, Mich., Ray Shemanski, who is in charge of the company’s lithium-ion operation, said, “We have orders that would fill this plant right now.” Every company I visited not only had plans to get their primary factories running full speed by 2012 or 2013 but also to build or expand others. Jennifer Granholm, Michigan’s former governor, has predicted that advanced batteries will create 62,000 jobs over the next decade.