Is energy storage the next job creator?
Could the energy storage industry fabricate some of the “thousands and thousands of jobs” that President Trump says he wants?
The short answer from insiders is yes. But whether those jobs arrive during his administration or are delayed or lost to Asia will depend in part on decisions Trump makes on trade, energy, transportation and infrastructure.
Across the young industry, there are hopeful signs: Students have massed at Tesla Inc. job fairs in Nevada, where the company plans to hire 3,000 people in the first half of 2017, according to a spokeswoman. As many as 150 new jobs were posted recently at a plant in Michigan. CEOs across the industry speak of an upswing, though one that is suffering through a period of Trump-induced uncertainty.
If lithium-ion batteries scale up and become a fixture in homes, businesses and automobiles, energy storage could create more than 120,000 jobs, according to SuperCharge US, an industry coalition. Many would be local, living-wage positions that don’t require a college degree.
Decisions are being made now that will shape the industry’s job profile for years to come. Tesla and other energy storage manufacturers are investing heavily in automation, which could make domestic manufacturing competitive — but results in a lot fewer jobs. Universities in California and Nevada are founding the country’s first-degree programs that specifically focus on batteries.
Energy storage isn’t a business where people think small.
When Alevo, a maker of grid-scale batteries in North Carolina, started hiring a couple of years ago, 10,000 people applied. The 300 who got hired helped build the first factory line. If the cavernous factory reaches its capacity — 20 times the size of today — it could employ 3,000, said Chris Christiansen, the company’s president.
“We see the market coming and increasing every year,” he said.
Your move, President Trump
Energy storage is an octopus whose arms are beginning to extend into nearly every part of the energy business, from transportation to consumer electronics to the electric grid. Decisions of the Trump administration will affect it in many ways.
They “will be a source of immense anxiety in the energy community,” according to a recent energy storage market report from GTM Research.
Trump campaigned on renewing America’s aging infrastructure, and a preliminary wish list of 50 projects mentioned one energy storage project, in California. But the administration has not clarified its priorities or made headway on legislation.
On a longer time horizon, Trump’s call for across-the-board cuts to domestic programs, especially at the Department of Energy, make it likely that energy storage will suffer (Energywire, March 16).
Former President Obama’s DOE seeded much investment in new energy storage technology. Cuts to those programs would make it less likely that the United States will create a new secret sauce that unseats the current energy storage manufacturing base, now deeply entrenched in Asia. Meanwhile, cutbacks could deflate short-term confidence in the industry.
In policy, a looming uncertainty is the depleted Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. With the resignation of member Norman Bay in early February, the five-member commission is hobbling along with only two members and doesn’t have a quorum, threatening all energy projects that fall under its jurisdiction, including energy storage (Energywire, Feb. 17). A FERC proposal to open wholesale electricity markets to energy storage in November has been stalled due to the commission being short-handed.
Another is federal auto emissions standards, which support the energy storage industry by encouraging automakers to make more hybrid and electric cars. Those standards were tightened under Obama, but major automakers are pressing Trump to loosen them. Also unknown is whether Trump’s new head of U.S. EPA, Scott Pruitt, will attempt to revoke a long-standing waiver given to California to set its own fuel economy standards, which are the tightest in the country.
And then there’s trade, where Trump has threatened to raise tariffs against Chinese imports.
The future of the energy storage industry “depends on how protectionist our trade policies become,” said Mark Barteau, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Michigan.
China sold $728 million of energy products to the United States in 2014, more than any other country. Meanwhile, the U.S. sent less than $41 million the other way, according to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
While Trump may want to raise tariffs against China to protect domestic industry, several sources said the U.S. doesn’t have the capacity to pick up the slack quickly. That means the biggest impact would be to drive up prices — and greatly slow the pace of the energy storage industry, and its job creation.
The anatomy of storage
Energy storage has a long and complex supply chain where the U.S. plays a role at every station. At each lies opportunities for jobs. Nowhere is this more true than with the fastest-growing type of battery, lithium-ion.
Mining: The United States has abundant supplies of lithium underground, from Nevada to the Carolinas. But it remains at the exploratory stage compared with large mines in Argentina and Australia. Two mining companies, Lithium Americas and Pure Energy Minerals, are in the exploratory stages in Nevada, while FMC Lithium mines and processes a form of the metal in Gaston, N.C.
Cells and materials: The base unit of a battery is the cell. If the industry takes off, that is where the careers of many an electrical and chemical engineer will be made. The cell is a dense assembly of anodes, cathodes, separators and electrolytes. Determining which materials make the safest, densest, longest-lasting battery is a race among researchers the world over.