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In the quest for the clean energy revolution, the United States is one of many countries that have ramped up investment in electric vehicles manufacturing and renewable energy sources to power the shift away from fossil fuels.

But that is an industry that has already been staked out by another power: China. After a decadeslong push, Beijing wields considerable control over supply chains for lithium-ion batteries, which are critical to everything from electric cars to smartphones. That dominance has transformed those powerful batteries—and the key metals they comprise of—into a thorny geopolitical flash point during a period of heightened tensions.

“China is the dominant player across the supply chain for almost all of these critical minerals,” said Morgan Bazilian, director of the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines and a former lead energy specialist at the World Bank. “That happens to feed into one of the only roughly bipartisan areas of agreement in the United States, which is that we’re in some sort of economic war with China.” 

In the quest for the clean energy revolution, the United States is one of many countries that have ramped up investment in electric vehicles manufacturing and renewable energy sources to power the shift away from fossil fuels.

But that is an industry that has already been staked out by another power: China. After a decadeslong push, Beijing wields considerable control over supply chains for lithium-ion batteries, which are critical to everything from electric cars to smartphones. That dominance has transformed those powerful batteries—and the key metals they comprise of—into a thorny geopolitical flash point during a period of heightened tensions.

“China is the dominant player across the supply chain for almost all of these critical minerals,” said Morgan Bazilian, director of the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines and a former lead energy specialist at the World Bank. “That happens to feed into one of the only roughly bipartisan areas of agreement in the United States, which is that we’re in some sort of economic war with China.” 

Forged from critical minerals—including lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese—lithium-ion batteries can hold considerable energy, making them crucial to efforts to swap out fossil fuels for cleaner alternatives. “Any really serious move towards decarbonizing energy and transportation systems is going to require a massive increase in the amount of battery capacity that’s out there,” said Cullen Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

As demand for electric vehicles skyrockets, nations have been scrambling to tap the riches in the ground for these batteries. Global sales of electric vehicles doubled in 2021 from the previous year, according to the International Energy Agency. That explosion was largely driven by China, where roughly one-quarter of all new car sales were electric or hybrid. 

To power the energy transition in the coming decades, these battery inputs will become even more pivotal. The World Bank has projected that billions of tons of minerals could be necessary to supply clean energy technology by 2050. 

The bulk of these raw materials can be found in a handful of mineral-rich nations. Indonesia, for instance, produces 40 percent of the world’s nickel while lithium—sometimes dubbed “white gold”—is largely sourced from Australia and the so-called lithium triangle in South America. Some 70 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the mining industry has a dirty underbelly of human rights abuses and reports of child labor. Mining for graphite, a key component in batteries, is overwhelmingly done in China.

Once dug up, the ore needs to be refined and processed—and that’s where Beijing dominates across the board. “China has, in a lot of senses, become the world’s foundry for the processing of a variety of different minerals,” Hendrix said. 

That is the product of Beijing’s deliberate, decadeslong effort to build up its own industry, Bazilian added. “China decided that minerals and metals were going to play a big role in the future of energy and defense and began to make investments across supply chains” for raw materials, processing, and battery manufacturing, he said. “It wasn’t an overnight decision.”

The result has rattled policymakers in Washington, where heightened tensions with China have fueled concerns that Beijing could leverage its influence for geopolitical ends—as it has before. Most recently, Russia’s tightening chokehold on Europe’s natural gas supply showcased the dangers of economic over-dependence on political foes. That “is the freshest reminder of the importance of diversifying supply chains,” said Jane Nakano, an energy security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It’s not just in battery supply chains where China plays a commanding role either. Across a spate of clean energy technologies—including wind power and solar panels—Beijing’s manufacturing and trade capacity have eclipsed much of the world’s, according to the International Energy Agency

“China definitely understands its dominance in this industry and could decide to flip the switch at any point,” said Sam Howell, who researches technology and national security at the Center for a New American Security. “The scary part is that there’s no simple or short-term fix for the U.S.” 

But Ilaria Mazzocco, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned against seeing China’s dominance in battery production as a national security threat simply because Beijing is involved. Unlike semiconductor chips, which can be used in weapons of mass destruction, she said, batteries used in clean technology don’t have the same national security implications.

“There’s an over-securitization of clean energy technologies,” Mazzocco said. “We’re at a point where everything becomes national security.” It’s important to incentivize the development of these industries not for national security reasons, she said, but for reasons related to the economy and climate change. 

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has been ramping up investments in battery manufacturing, pouring billions of dollars into the industry and pledging to ensure that electric vehicles account for half of all new vehicle sales in 2030. Although it will likely take decades to make a significant dent in China’s supply chain share, experts stress that the world is still at the beginning of an energy transition—and many countries are in it for the long haul. 

“China has a head start,” said Kwasi Ampofo, the head of metals and mining at BloombergNEF, “but it’s still unclear if we can call China a winner because we are still in the early stage of a transition.”

Batteries Are the Battlefield

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