Electric Cars Are Made by Republicans and Driven by Democrats

Dozens of used electric-vehicle batteries were stacked like cordwood on pallets in a warehouse-style building about 30 miles east of Reno, Nevada, when I visited the site last week.

The batteries were bound for an assembly line that would begin the chemical process of recycling up to 95 percent of the lithium, cobalt, and nickel they contain. Eventually, after treatment in two more buildings on the site, the metals will become a high-value, fine black powder called cathode active material that is shipped in vacuum-sealed containers to Toyota and Panasonic for the manufacture of new EV batteries.

This cutting-edge recycling process has been developed by a company named Redwood Materials. Founded by J. B. Straubel, a former chief technology officer at Tesla, Redwood has invested about $2 billion in this 300-acre facility located in an industrial park in rural Storey County, not far from where Tesla has built a massive “Gigafactory” manufacturing complex.

With about 900 employees now on-site, and a workforce of 1,500 expected when the plant is operating at capacity, Redwood’s Nevada facility embodies the economic opportunities spinning off from the environmental imperative to reduce carbon emissions and combat the risk of global climate change.

The facility is also a testament to the incongruous political dynamics forming around the emerging electric-vehicle industry and the broader transition toward a clean-energy economy.

Electric vehicles are being adopted at the fastest rate inside blue-leaning major metropolitan areas. In polls, self-identified Democrats now express much more openness to purchasing an EV than Republicans.

Yet counties that Donald Trump won in 2020, such as Nevada’s tiny Storey County, are receiving the most private investment, and the jobs associated with it, in new EV-production facilities, according to a Brookings Metro analysis provided exclusively to The Atlantic.

The paradox is that even as those red-leaning places are receiving the greatest direct economic benefits from the EV transition, they have mostly elected Republican House members who voted last year to repeal the new federal tax incentives that have encouraged these investments. These places are also likely to provide most of their votes this fall to Trump, who has pledged to repeal “on day one” all of President Joe Biden’s efforts to accelerate the EV transition.

All of this raises doubts about whether it’s sustainable for the emerging EV industry to rely preponderantly on Democratic-leaning places for both its sales and political backing, while providing the greatest economic lift to Republican-leaning places electing political figures hostile to government support for the industry. Put another way: Is red makers for blue takers a viable model for the green economy?

“Every industrial order requires policy support, and so you can certainly imagine all sorts of problems if you have a complete disconnect of the production side from the consumption side,” Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, told me.

The risk of losing federal support has come as the electric-vehicle industry faces a noticeable slowdown in its previously rapid sales growth. That means the industry could experience even greater disruption if Trump wins and succeeds in repealing the incentives for EV adoption that Biden signed into the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

If the incentives are rescinded, U.S. companies across the emerging EV industry will find it much more difficult to survive the rising competitive challenge from China, Albert Gore III, the executive director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association, told me.

“The role of public policy in achieving the objective of eventually out-competing China in manufacturing batteries, battery components, and EVs themselves is really significant,” said Gore, the son of the former vice president and environmental advocate Al Gore. “Those two bills have taken existing momentum [in the industry] and accelerated it and magnified it.”

At this early stage in the industry’s development, the mismatch between the geography of EV production and consumption—between the makers and takers—could hardly be greater.

In its tabulation, Brookings Metro identifies more than $123 billion in U.S. investments in EV plants since Biden took office. Almost exactly 70 percent of that spending has flowed into counties Trump won in 2020, Brookings found.

The environmental group Climate Power tracks all private-sector investment in clean energy, including facilities that manufacture components for generating solar and wind electric power, and plants that provide semiconductors for clean-energy products and improvements to the electric grid. In its latest report, the group found that since passage of the IRA, Republican-held House districts had received three-fourths of the total $352 billion in clean-energy investment under that broader definition; the GOP districts had also received 53 percent of all the jobs associated with those investments.

In contrast, the places where EVs comprise the largest share of new vehicle registrations are entirely large blue-leaning metropolitan areas, according to a recent New York Times analysis using data from S&P Global Mobility. All six of the metro areas where EVs exceed 20 percent of new registrations are on the West Coast, including five in California and Seattle; other places where EVs have made the most inroads, the Times found, include Portland, Oregon; Denver; Las Vegas; Phoenix; and Washington, D.C. Deep-blue California alone accounts for more than one-third of all U.S. EV registrations.

Polling shows that uncertainty about EV costs, reliability, and charging infrastructure is evident among a broad range of Americans. But the partisan gap over EVs remains striking.

In Gallup polling this spring, about one-fourth of Democrats said they either own or are seriously considering purchasing an EV; nearly another half of Democrats said they were somewhat open to buying one. But Republican voters have become deeply resistant to EVs;  in both the 2023 and 2024 Gallup surveys, about seven in 10 say they would never buy one. Other polling this year has found that while Democrats, by a ratio of about 10 to one, believe that EVs are better for the environment and more energy efficient than gas-powered cars, a plurality of Republicans say that traditional internal-combustion-engine vehicles are better on both counts. Republicans are also far more likely than Democrats to say that gas-powered cars are safer, more reliable, and more affordable to operate. And of course, many more Republicans than Democrats to begin with reject the scientific consensus that carbon emissions are dangerously transforming the environment.

Brian Deese, who helped devise Biden’s clean-energy strategy as his first director of the National Economic Council, told me that economics, not politics, explained the geography of EV production. In choosing where to locate their plants, Deese said, companies are not focusing on a community’s political inclinations but rather are looking for places with lots of space, as well as nearby manufacturing and construction capacity. All of those factors, he notes, tend to be most available in communities outside major metro areas that are now preponderantly represented by Republicans. Labor officials would add one other factor: In many cases, companies are locating their new EV facilities in Republican-leaning states with right-to-work laws that impede union organizing.

Deese also thinks it’s too soon to assume that Democratic voters will remain the prime market for EVs. Although polls today show such political polarization around EVs, “it’s pretty hard to think of a technology where there was a cheaper, better technology to solve a consumer need and consumers prioritized a cultural or political patina over lower costs and higher quality,” said Deese, who is now a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research.

The challenge for the EV industry is that the current mismatch between its makers and takers could doom the public policies promoting its growth before it can prove its value to consumers across the political spectrum.

The industry’s key firms, as Gore told me, began investing in EV facilities long before Biden signed the IRA and infrastructure bills, or finalized the Environmental Protection Agency regulations requiring auto manufacturers to sell a growing number of zero-emission vehicles over the next decade. But companies, he added, are undoubtedly counting on both those carrots and sticks when calculating how much consumer demand will grow to support the EV-production facilities they are building.

Redwood itself typifies that dynamic. Alexis Georgeson, Redwood’s vice president of government relations and communications, pointed out that the company was formed in 2017, while Trump was president; even then, she told me, Straubel recognized that as the number of EVs on the road increased, recycling their batteries could provide an economic opportunity while also reducing U.S. reliance on foreign sources of lithium and other critical minerals the batteries require. “Our mission, our business proposition, has not changed as a result of what we have seen happening with this administration,” Georgeson said.

But Georgeson is quick to add that the policies approved under Biden have “been tremendously helpful to us.” Redwood has been approved for a $2 billion federal loan to fund further expansion of its Nevada site (although it has not received any of the money yet). It also will benefit from the IRA provisions that provide tax credits for producers and consumers in order to encourage domestic manufacture of EV batteries. Within a few years, Redwood expects to be producing enough of the recycled minerals, as well as superthin foil from recycled copper, to manufacture at least 1 million EV batteries a year.

Devon Reese, a Reno city-council member, told me that the EV industry’s rapid expansion in the area has come with “growing pains” mostly relating to ensuring reliable transportation to the isolated Storey County. But overall, he said, there’s no question that the industry’s growth “absolutely has been a net positive” for the community. There are “probably nearly 11,000 jobs that have been created in this region by the energy projects,” Reese told me. “That represents a lot of families, and homes that are owned, and apartments that are rented, and stores that are shopped in.”

Despite this enormous flow of investment into the Reno region from Redwood and Tesla’s “Gigafactory,” Mark Amodei, the area’s Republican U.S. representative, joined every other House Republican last year in voting to repeal all of the IRA’s incentives for EV production and clean energy. Every House and Senate Republican also voted against the initial passage of the IRA in 2022.

After his repeal vote, Amodei told me he questioned how many of the construction and production jobs would really go to Nevada residents. “The benefits I don’t think outweighed the negative stuff in terms of debt, inflation, and—oh, by the way—how much really came to Nevada,” Amodei said. He also said that the pace at which Biden is seeking to encourage a transition away from internal-combustion engines toward EVs “borders on suicidal” and “just makes no sense unless it’s all about a political agenda and not much about solving problems” (Amodei’s office did not respond to a question about whether his views have changed since then).

Environmentalists had hoped that the spread of clean-energy investments into Republican-held seats would politically safeguard the IRA the same way the diffusion of military projects across virtually every state and district ensures broad bipartisan congressional support for defense-spending bills. Groups, including Climate Power, are running ads in swing states this year touting the new jobs that EV manufacturers are creating, for instance in building fully electric school buses. “This is really about jobs in the United States,” Alex Glass, Climate Power’s managing director of communications, told me. “What Donald Trump has been saying is he would rather have these jobs—the jobs of the future—happen in China.”

But the willingness of all House Republicans to vote to repeal Biden’s EV incentives, even while their districts are receiving most of the investment flowing from them, challenged the traditional assumption that politicians fear voting against policies that are providing direct economic benefits to their voters.

Now the hope among clean-energy advocates is that some Republicans whose districts are benefiting from these incentives voted to rescind them last year only because they knew that repeal could never become law with a Democratic Senate and president. If Trump wins, and Republicans seize unified control of Congress next year, a vote to repeal the IRA incentives would transform from a symbolic gesture into an actual threat to jobs in these districts. Even under a scenario of unified Republican control in Washington next year, “our perspective is that it would be quite challenging” for the GOP to assemble enough votes for repeal, Georgeson said.

As evidence, she pointed to the disconnect between Republican opposition to the IRA in Washington and the cooperation the company has received from GOP governors and other state officials in Nevada and South Carolina, where it is beginning work on an even larger recycling plant that will involve $3.5 billion in investment. “Both states have been incredibly supportive of us,” she told me, providing assistance not only in infrastructure but in forging partnerships with local colleges to train workers for the new jobs.

Gore told me that the electric-vehicle industry will mobilize to defend the federal tax and spending programs promoting its growth if Republicans try again to repeal them next year. The industry, he said, must do a better job of demonstrating how it is benefiting the Republican-leaning communities where it is primarily investing. But, he added, it can now marshal powerful evidence for that case in the form of new manufacturing plants and jobs. “No politician sees a vote against a popular growing factory in his or her district as a winning issue,” Gore told me.

As Trump and congressional Republicans escalate their threats against Biden’s environmental agenda, the best defense for the emerging clean-energy industry may be the growing number of red communities benefiting from the green of new paychecks.

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