Is it preferable to have the cheapest possible green technologies, even if that means surrendering manufacture to other countries? Low solar panel prices have helped drive an explosion of new solar PV growth, and that has in turn supported many U.S. jobs. But the bulk of those panels are made in China. The Trump Administration has attempted to address this by placing tariffs on imported solar panels, but these tariffs have been vigorously opposed by most of the U.S. solar industry.
China has a major advantage of cheap labor, which has allowed it to dominate many manufacturing industries. But China also has more lithium reserves and much greater lithium production than the U.S. In 2018, Chinese lithium production was 8,000 metric tons, third among all countries and nearly ten times U.S. lithium production. Chinese lithium reserves in 2018 were one million metric tons, nearly 30 times U.S. levels.
The Path Forward
The trends signal that lithium-ion batteries will increasingly displace lead-acid batteries in the transportation and heavy equipment sectors. This is a critical development in a world grappling with record carbon dioxide emissions.
But with such an advantage in both manufacturing costs and raw material availability, can the U.S. compete with China in the world market? If not, as growing numbers of lithium-ion batteries reach the end of their usable life, can the U.S. develop a competitive market for recycled lithium?
These are important questions that need to be addressed.
The transition to lithium batteries is opening up many new challenges and opportunities. But the U.S. needs an effective strategy to avoid ceding yet another clean energy manufacturing opportunity to China.