Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday thanked workers at an electric car battery plant in Greenfield for doing their part to lift America's auto industry from its dependence on foreign oil into a high-tech future.
"We have to create whole new industries in the 21st century," Biden told a crowd of workers, company officials and politicians at Ener1's car battery plant about 25 miles east of Indianapolis.
Biden's visit came the day after a State of the Union speech in which President Barack Obama pledged to work to put 1 million advanced technology vehicles such as electric cars and hybrids on America's roads by 2015.
The White House proposes changing a $7,500 tax incentive currently available for buying an electric car into a rebate that a consumer could receive at the point of sale. The administration also seeks to boost research and development into electric vehicles and create a competitive grant program offering up to $10 million apiece to 30 communities that help foster electric cars.
Biden said one key component was to make charging an electric car easier either at home or at a charging station like a gas station.
Members of Congress are also seeking incentives. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., on Wednesday proposed increasing the number of tax credits for electric vehicles to 500,000 per car manufacturer, up from the current cap of 200,000 vehicles. General Motors has said the cap could hinder future sales of the Chevrolet Volt.
Biden, however, likened such steps to "seed money" and compared it to the way the government fostered the development of railroads in the 1800s. He noted the Recovery Act had included $2.4 billion to help develop advanced auto technology.
"Businesses aren't always ready to roll the dice," he said, adding that the U.S. couldn't afford to stand by and let other nations take the lead in a new industry.
"We have to make this a platform," he said, "A platform upon which to build a prosperous future."
Ener1 hopes to build on that platform. The New York-based company has 350 employees working at three plants in the Indianapolis area, with more than 80 working in the Greenfield plant that opened last February. The company used a $118.5 million Recovery Act matching grant in 2009 to expand its production of lithium-ion batteries and has teamed up with Wanxiang Electric Vehicle Group Ltd. to make batteries for the Chinese market.
Ener1 chairman and CEO Charles Gassenheimer called Biden's remarks "groundshaking" for the fledgling electric car industry as the administration shifts its focus to building demand and infrastructure for electric vehicles.
He said without stimulus funds for investment, Ener1's plants likely would have been built overseas.
Wendy Howard, a single mother who lost two auto industry jobs to downsizing before making a fresh start at Ener1 eight months ago, introduced Biden and said later, "He's right along board with us."