An American company seeking to make headway in the foreign-dominated electric car battery industry will be in the spotlight Wednesday when Vice President Joe Biden visits its plant in central Indiana.
Biden will be in Greenfield, about 25 miles east of Indianapolis, to visit an Ener1 Inc. plant that received a $118.5 million Recovery Act grant in 2009 to expand its battery production. The visit is planned a day after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
The White House said Biden will be talking to workers at the plant where lithium-ion batteries are assembled about how the administration is promoting investment in innovation and helping to lay the foundation for American competiveness.
"It's a great opportunity because it's a confirmation of what we've been doing," said Brian Sinderson, Ener1's director of corporate communications. "He's coming out to highlight what the Recovery Act is all about."
Ener1, a New York-based publicly traded company, has 350 people working at three plants in the Indianapolis area, with more than 80 working in the Greenfield plant that opened last February, Sinderson said. The company hopes to have more than 1,500 people working at the plant by 2015.
The company's stock rose earlier this month after it announced it is teaming up with Wanxiang Electric Vehicle Group Ltd. to make batteries for the Chinese market.
"It's significant because it enables Ener1 to establish a foothold and penetrate the Chinese market," said Michael Lew, clean tech-energy efficiency analyst with Needham & Co.
But Lew described Ener1 as a small company that is still moving from the development stage to commercialization.
It will be the second visit to Indiana in a little over two months for Biden. He and Obama were in Kokomo on Nov. 23 to visit a Chrysler transmission plant they said is a symbol of the auto industry's rebound and proof the federal bailout of struggling automakers succeeded.
Last year Obama and Biden made stops in neighboring Michigan for groundbreaking ceremonies for lithium-ion battery plants in Holland and Midland. Biden told reporters in Midland he believed the plant represented "the beginning of a revolution in the production of energy in this country."
Some believe a new era of vehicles has begun with the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, even though sales have been slow. Ener1 is providing batteries that are being used in Think Global of Norway, which has started to produce electric cars in Elkhart, in northern Indiana. Lew said that might help boost Ener1.
"Once these big car companies see the streets start to see more packs from Ener1 on the road, it becomes one of those things of, 'Oh, maybe I don't have to go to Panasonic and Sanyo, but maybe there is an alternative in Ener1" Lew said.
Carter Driscoll, a senior analyst for clean technologies with CapStone Investments, said that although battery technology has improved tremendously in recent years, it still has a long way to go.
"The whole battery space has been long on promise and short on delivery for a long time," he said.