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Grants aim to rev alternative vehicle technology

Aug 5, 2009 - The Associated Press

DETROIT - President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials took to separate stages nationwide Wednesday to announce $2.4 billion in federal grants to develop next-generation electric vehicles and batteries.

It was dramatic way for the president's team to jump start the biggest bet yet on a future free from - or at least far less dependent on - fossil fuels. Biden made the case from the home of the hard-hit U.S. auto industry.

"The ultimate success of electric cars relies on better batteries, better drive-trains, reducing carbon emissions, making alternative energy more available," Biden told a crowd of about 300 in Detroit outside NextEnergy, a nonprofit that works with businesses on research involving alternative and renewable energy.

"If we fail to invest, virtually none of that market will be in the U.S. ... We have a tremendous opportunity here - right here in Detroit - to invest in our vehicle fleet, shifting toward electrification."

The grants will be split among nearly 50 projects in 25 states, with the biggest shares going to Indiana and Michigan to create job opportunities in the automotive industry.

Recipients include Johnson Controls Inc., of Milwaukee, $299 million to build battery packs and cells for hybrid vehicles at a facility in Holland, Mich.; General Motors Co., $241 million to produce battery packs and the develop electric drive vehicles in Michigan and Maryland; and Ford Motor Co., $92.7 million for electric drive components at plants in Michigan and Missouri.

The administration calls it the single largest investment in advanced battery technology for hybrid and electric-drive vehicles ever made.

The $2.4 billion is divided into the following areas:

_ $1.5 billion to the production of batteries and their components.

_ $500 million for other components needed for the cars, like electric motors.

_ $400 million toward buying plug-in hybrid cars for test demonstrations, install an electric charging network and training for technicians and related costs.

An Arizona-based company working with Nissan Motor Co. is getting nearly $100 million to supply chargers for electric vehicles. Electric Transportation Engineering Corp., a subsidiary of ECOtality Inc., has a deal with the Japanese automaker to provide private and public charging stations as 5,000 Nissan plug-in electric vehicles launch in 2010.

ECOtality President and CEO Jonathan Read said the initiative will be the "largest rollout of electric charging stations and electric vehicles."

"We are providing the chargers and the link between the vehicles and the grid," he said.

Still, with the massive R&D effort comes hurdles, and the biggest one is cost.

The lithium-ion battery would be the heart of the electric car - the new gasoline, if researchers can make it work. You can make a lithium-ion battery and put it a car right now, but the battery alone would run you about $40,000.

The race now is to slash costs for mass production, and they're coming down.

The nickel-metal hydride batteries used now in cars like the Toyota Prius must still be paired with a combustion engine. Hydride batteries can give you short bursts of power. Lithium-ion can store more energy, but it's still more delicate and heat is more of a problem.

Don Hillebrand, director of the Transportation Research Center at Argonne National Laboratory, calls nickel-metal hydride a power battery, while lithium-ion is an energy battery.

And the way the government has approached the research is smart, he said, issuing grants to dozens of companies.

"This means the ability to make these batteries is going to come from all over the country," said Hillebrand. "There are different techniques from different companies. This is going to mean billions of dollars of dollars over 20 years and you are creating and industry."

Gerald Meyers, a University of Michigan business professor and former chairman of American Motors Corp., said the grants are appropriate and not excessive when compared with other government expenditures.

"This is the province of government if there ever was one - apply the brains to commercialize or at least develop the state of the art to the point where it will be useful to commerce," he said.

Dow Chemical Co. Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris was in Detroit for the announcement. A Dow joint venture called Dow Kokam received a $161 million grant to build a lithium polymer battery technology manufacturing plant in Dow's home of Midland, Mich.

Creating what he called "a completely new market segment" is difficult but necessary to curb carbon emissions and revitalize U.S. manufacturing.

"The country is being re-engineered," he said.


Associated Press Writer Bill Poovey in Chattanooga, Tenn., contributed to this report.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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