The bankruptcy of electric vehicle battery maker A123 Systems earlier this week turned a spotlight on the struggles of the Obama administration's push for green jobs of the future around electric cars, which has fallen short in employment and production. Now a new report says in one Michigan plant, built with $151 million in federal money to assemble battery cells for the Chevrolet Volt, workers have been paid for months to do nothing. According to WOOD-TV of Grand Rapids, Mich., the 300 workers at the LG Chem plant in nearby Holland have yet to ship a single production battery cell since the plant opened late last year. While employees have built battery cells for testing, those were shipped back to LG Chem's home labs in South Korea months ago, leaving workers to do odd jobs around the factory, volunteer for community projects or just sit and play Monopoly. Several say training also stopped months ago, leading some employees to quit in frustration.
The $300 million plant was launched by President Barack Obama in July 2010, at a bipartisan ceremony where Obama hailed the LG Chem plant and similar efforts by A123 as "jobs in the industries of the future," saying it was key for the United States to build not just more electric vehicles and hybrids but their batteries as well. The LG Chem's plant initial contract called for workers to build lithium-ion battery cells, 288 of which are used in every Chevy Volt -- and which are now made in South Korea and shipped to a GM plant in Michigan.
At the time, General Motors was still expecting to sell as many as 60,000 Volts a year worldwide, but after demand failed to match those expectations, GM cut back production. The automaker's on track to sell about 20,000 Volts in the United States this year, and has declined to offer future production estimates; the Cadillac ELR coupe version of the range-extended electric car will go into production next year, but isn't anticipated to be a huge seller. At one point, the plant was also expected to supply batteries to the electric version of the Ford Focus, but LG Chem provides those cells from South Korea as well. Ford has only sold 228 Focus Electrics so far this year, and its sales plans for the$40,000 Focus seem limited to meeting California emissions rules.
In fairness, the Volt's slow growth rate has mirrored that of the Toyota Prius after it was launched; Toyota only sold 15,500 Priuses in Japan in its second full year of production, before the Prius became the world's best-selling hybrid. The auto industry has made scaling battery factories more difficult by demanding customized cells for every low-volume EV model -- only the Tesla Model S uses an off-the-shelf design. And every auto industry insider expects plug-in hybrids and lithium batteries to become standard on vehicles in the coming years, thanks to tougher fuel economy regulations around the world. But paying people to do nothing is the weakest form of economic stimulus, and the idle plant highlights how big government bets on where and when the future will arrive often go bad -- or leave a few lucky people plenty of time to practice pinochle.