After the presidential election, Obama staffed his Energy Department with people who felt similarly. Steven Chu, Obama's Nobel laureate energy secretary, had led pioneering alternative-fuel research as director of the department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Sandalow is a former executive vice president of the World Wildlife Fund who had spent the previous five years at the Brookings Institution puzzling over a technology he believed to be key to kicking America's petroleum habit: the advanced battery. In his 2008 book, Freedom from Oil, Sandalow sketched a plan for how the next U.S. president could promote the adoption of electric cars, beginning with subsidized vehicle purchases and battery-performance guarantees and ending with investment in research to improve the technology to the point where it would be viable on its own. "The biggest barrier to mass [electric car] production," he wrote in Freedom from Oil, "is battery technology."
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by the U.S. Congress in February 2009 gave Sandalow the opportunity to road-test his ideas. The stimulus bill handed the Energy Department $167 billion for grants and loan guarantees, six times the department's annual budget and a near-blank check for innovation; $2.4 billion of the grants have since gone to efforts to build a battery-manufacturing base, and Chu has included battery research in the portfolios of the nationwide network of energy research centers he has funded. Labs backed with Energy Department money, such as Argonne, are now experimenting with an exotic array of nascent technologies: batteries powered by zinc-bromide solutions, magnesium, lithium-sulfur combinations, and even just the movement of electrons.
But the United States is sprinting to catch up. Technologically speaking, Japan is the current leader -- it has a two-decade jump on the competition in research and development. South Korea, which has dominated electronics manufacturing since 2005, is a close second. Still, it's China that inspires the most fear in the United States.
In 1986, the same year that Ronald Reagan removed Jimmy Carter's solar panels from the White House roof, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched the 863 Program, an initiative with the aim of jump-starting technological innovation in the Middle Kingdom. In the 1990s and 2000s, as China's accelerating growth brought with it dependence on oil imports and coal-fired power plants that choked the skies, the project's attentions turned to alternative-energy technology. Funding for energy research under the 863 Program grew nearly 50 times its original size between 1991 and 2005, according to the New Yorker. Among the new initiatives was a push, launched in 1998, to develop a domestic lithium-ion battery industry. The Chinese government began handing multimillion-dollar grants to companies looking to get into the electric-car business.
In 2006, China ramped up its investment again, bankrolling 16 scientific research projects totaling about $147 million a year each. This time the aim was explicit: The Chinese government vowed to "build an innovation-oriented country," becoming a tech-exporting superpower. "Scientists and engineers are at the spearhead of China's economic development," Mu Rongping, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Policy and Management, told the South China Morning Post last year. "They are aiming for the heart of China's business rivals."
At the tip of the spear is Wan Gang, whose ministry oversees the 863 Program and virtually every other technology-oriented effort of the Chinese government. Speaking to Britain's Guardian last year, Wan compared the global financial meltdown to past crises that had provided the impetus for great technological breakthroughs -- breakthroughs that in turn became engines for new economic development. "This time," he said, "new energy technology will probably be the new driving force."
China may lag Japan and South Korea in battery expertise, but its size, not to mention its government's ability to mobilize whole industries, is a substantial equalizer. Beijing is betting that by sheer force of will and scale of investment it can overtake its more technologically sophisticated neighbors. Working with the public encouragement of Premier Wen Jiabao, Wan has set targets that call for Chinese companies to put an unparalleled 500,000 electric cars on the road next year, up from a few thousand today (though Wan offered more modest goals in his discussions with American policymakers and scientists). By government edict, some two dozen Chinese companies are bringing models to the country's auto market -- the largest in the world as of 2009 -- in the next two years. All-electric taxis built by auto manufacturer BYD already troll the streets of the company's home city of Shenzhen. "China is spending more than anyone else. They are coming on very strong technically and physically," says Ralph Brodd, a longtime authority on the battery industry. "Being there recently, it was very much like what I experienced in the '60s and '70s in the United States -- everyone is enthusiastic and working hard."
The United States isn't just competing against China -- it's trying to escape its own recent history. Over the last quarter-century, the country has lost much of the manufacturing capital required to launch a new industry from whole cloth. The same trends that led American companies to hand over previous generations of the battery industry to Japan -- the loss of heavy industrial capacity and diminished investments in research and development that followed the shareholder-value mania of the 1980s and 1990s -- have left the country ill-prepared to establish itself as a leader in the next generation. Meanwhile, rising middle-class living standards and job opportunities in China, India, and elsewhere mean that the United States can no longer count on attracting the world's best and brightest. Increasingly, the sharpest minds in engineering and the sciences would just as soon stay home -- or, like Wan Gang, move back. "I fear for the Americans," says Harrop, the technology consultant. "They are so far behind in terms of mass production and also don't have the customers in their own area. The Obama money gives Americans a chance. But it certainly doesn't guarantee success -- and doesn't outspend the East."