Biden climate push positions Tennessee for electric car boom, but hurdles must be worked out

The White House’s new American Jobs Plan proposes spending more than $200 billion in support of electric vehicles powered entirely by batteries recharged from the nation’s electric grid. But the green car ambitions face a stubborn fact — the country isn’t ready yet.

Before a big electric fleet can run on the roads, rare earth minerals must be found and mined and electric power plants and battery producers vastly scaled up. Analysts say the nation presently lacks the raw minerals, the electric power capacity or the battery production to put millions of electric autos on the road.

“All things considered, the nation’s current and planned production capacity will leave the U.S. dramatically short,” said Alla Kolesnikova, head of data and analytics for Toronto-based technology researcher Adamas Intelligence, referring to battery plant production volume.

Battery costs have fallen since President Joe Biden, as vice president, worked on the Obama White House’s $2.4 billion green car initiative. Launched in 2009, the program failed to set off a green car boom in part because battery systems were too costly — accounting for about half the price of a proposed $28,000 electric sedan. Since then, battery costs have fallen — analysts say the price is around $10,000. That's encouraged green car advocates.

For more than a decade, advocates have insisted affordable electric autos can spare the planet from wrenching climate change tied partly to the exhaust of gasoline, diesel and jet engines that contribute 29% of the greenhouse gases vented annually into U.S. skies. Across the country, company and government planners have responded. In recent months:

    In Memphis, FedEx Chairman Frederick Smith said the carrier's 200,000 vehicles will be carbon neutral by 2040.

    In Detroit, General Motors decided to convert its Spring Hill assembly lines near Nashville to make only electric autos.

    In New York, analysts predict 10% of the 17 million new autos sold annually nationwide will be electric vehicles by 2025, and over 30% by 2035, the year GM executives say all its new autos will be electric.

    In Nashville, state planners set out to devise a statewide recharging network for electric cars and trucks.

    In Middle and East Tennessee, four battery plants already are open or planned, making the state one of the nation’s three major hubs for supplying batteries for electric vehicles.

    Nationwide, an array of electric car entrepreneurs are ramping up including, in Memphis, California-based Mullen Technologies, which says it has secured a sport-utility model designed in China.

Tennessee plans EV future

American inventors pined for electric cars from the very start of the auto industry. Finally, the technology has progressed. Never before has America been focused like now on EVs, short for electric vehicles.

But even in Tennessee, where Nissan Smyrna makes the electric Leaf car, and GM Spring Hill and Volkswagen Chattanooga separately will assemble electric models, the green car infrastructure still trails the ambitions.

“Our goal in Tennessee is to grow the fleet to 200,000 electric vehicles in 10 years,” said infrastructure planner Sabyasachee Mishra, associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Memphis.

Mishra is calculating where to put EV recharging stations statewide and how many to install as electric autos displace Tennessee's nearly 7 million gasoline and diesel cars and trucks. His study is part of a state government-commissioned research project.

He began the project before Biden announced his green car initiative. Even with the $200 billion-plus in federal spending proposed for EVs, the electric vehicle goal for Tennessee isn’t being revised higher, at least not yet. Mishra said too many infrastructure hurdles must first be solved.

“Even though the vision is there the full picture is still being planned out,’’ Mishra said.

Mishra and U of M engineering graduate student Huan Hoang Ngo are studying driving patterns in Chicago and Washington as well as long-distance travel. Mishra notes Tennessee's goal stops far short of making EV recharging stations common like gas stations.

In the near future, driving an electric car from, say, Memphis to Atlanta, will require motorists plan ahead and schedule online a stop to recharge their vehicle midway at a specific time, similar to scheduling air travel ahead of the trip, although the scheduling for EVs could be done only hours ahead of the drive.

That means if a driver hopes to recharge at Birmingham around noon, and the station’s chargers already are entirely booked at that time, the driver might have to wait or find another recharging network such as private and public systems planned by some automakers and cities.

For now, that’s all a theory and it is part of a larger question concerning ramping up EV production capacity. A larger issue: Powering the EVs. Battery plants must quadruple output to match the green car ambitions, said Kolesnikova, the research analyst in Toronto.

“And if that fact alone is not daunting enough,” she said, “one only needs to consider how much lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, alumina and graphite will be required each year and they will surely begin to appreciate the magnitude of the unprecedented challenge and opportunity facing the U.S. EV industry.’

The other concern: Electricity. Today’s battery-only car running on the interstate for an hour and a half uses as much electricity as the typical American home burns in one day including the power consumed by appliances and the air conditioner.

That’s a fair amount of energy — 100 kilowatt hours used every 100 miles, engineers say. Presently, U.S. power companies can supply homes, business and a big EV fleet. But there isn’t enough electricity in the early evening if millions of drivers come home from work, turn on the house lights, turn up the air conditioner and immediately plug their car into a wall socket for recharging. When that happens, brownouts could disrupt many cities.

“Even as we plan the infrastructure for electric vehicles we need to make sure there is enough electrical energy available,” Mishra said. “The current amount of electricity available will not meet the demand.”

Elon Musk, founder of U.S. electric car maker Tesla, recently made headlines in Germany, saying global “electricity demand will likely double over the next two decades as a result of the update of electric vehicles." The London-based World Nuclear Association estimated an EV surge would require 25 new nuclear plants worldwide by 2035.

In mulling an EV future, University of Texas researchers in 2018 estimated some states would need to add considerable power generating capacity, some states not so much. The researchers used a dramatic scenario — figuring the electrical demand if all gasoline cars and trucks were at once changed to EVs. Tennessee would require 26% more power, California 47%, while around the Southeast: Alabama would need 25% more power, Arkansas 25%, Georgia 29%, Kentucky 24%, Missouri 32%, Mississippi 28%, according to the 2018 report.

“While EVs might increase the amount of electricity the U.S. consumes, the investment required to accommodate them may be smaller than it appears,” the report says, noting EVs recharged from workplace parking lots during the day would not stress the electrical system in most states.

“What’s more, based on our calculations, the money Americans would save in fuel costs alone could offset these investments,” the report says. “For example, had most of California’s vehicles been electric by 2017, we estimate that its drivers would have saved around US$25 billion that year in fuel costs….”

What happens next?

It’s a heady dream, one that has preoccupied green car advocates for over a decade and now been amplified by Biden.

Congress still must approve the American Jobs Plan, but some Republican leaders say the spending package is too large and needs to be cut back. Whether the EV spending proposal survives intact remains to be seen.

If it does, key pieces of the EV initiative would spur demand for electric cars by providing use tax credits for consumers who buy an EV. Other pieces would ramp up money for expanding a recharging network and resolve other hurdles. Plans call for spending to be carried out over a decade.

“What is happening with the new administration is there is a lot of funding to grow the recharging infrastructure and innovate technology,” Mishra said. “People will be much more willing to buy electric vehicles, the affinity to buy will be much higher, if the administration in the White House is supporting this. But if one administration is positive for EVs, and the next one isn’t, we may not see the demand unfold.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Ted Evanoff

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit

Published May 20, 2021