Andrea Starr/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
A new federal law passed after the Energy Department allowed the export of taxpayer-funded battery technology to China aims to tighten restrictions on exporting such government discoveries abroad.
Initially, the “Invent Here, Make Here Act” will apply only to DHS programs. But the law’s sponsors in Congress say they plan to expand it to the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies next.
Mori. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, said she and the then-senator. Republican Rob Portman of Ohio initiated the measure after NPR investigated how a breakthrough battery technology from a U.S. government lab ended up at a Chinese company. The bill gained broad support in December as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
“The point of the Invent Here, Make Here Act is to make sure that when we invest American taxpayer money, breakthroughs actually end up being made here,” Baldwin said.
Working with public radio’s Northwest News Network, NPR found that the Department of Energy allowed cutting-edge technology to be transferred overseas from its Pacific Northwest National Laboratory with little oversight. The lab spent six years and more than $15 million developing a new battery formulation that uses vanadium.
Scientists believe batteries will change the way Americans power their homes. Instead, China just brought the world’s largest battery farm online using American technology.
NPR and N3 find DOE and labs twice awarded license to a company that moved manufacturing overseas despite contracts calling for the company to “substantially manufacture” batteries in the U.S.
In a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the Republican senator from Florida. Marco Rubio requested information and criticized the department’s actions.
“For too long, [China] Vital American technology was obtained through illicit means and the carelessness of government agencies…” he wrote.
Baldwin said she and her colleagues are focusing the new law first on the Department of Homeland Security to see what kind of response it gets. Now with bipartisan support, she said they intend to introduce legislation targeting the Energy Department and other federal agencies.
“Many of our legacy laws have huge loopholes,” she said. “There are a lot of additional actions we can take.”
Following the NPR report, the DOE revoked its license to the battery company and launched an internal investigation. The department has not publicly shared its findings. In response to NPR’s public records request under the Freedom of Information Act, officials sent 233 fully redacted pages — some public documents and NPR’s own emails.
But according to the E&E website, which obtained a copy of the report, investigators found that the department and the lab failed to adequately monitor permits. They found that despite years of “non-compliance,” frequent staff turnover and inadequate record-keeping prevented the lab from tracking battery licenses.
“While there have been legal provisions for decades to ensure that American manufacturing uses these patents in the United States, unfortunately, they have been widely ignored,” said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a nonprofit policy group.
Federal agencies are finally embracing the idea of protecting American taxpayer investments, Paul said. For decades, the United States has failed to produce some of its best discoveries, such as solar panels, drones, telecommunications equipment and semiconductors.
“I’m bullish on the outlook for manufacturing,” he said. “But we really have to stop making these stupid, unforced mistakes like ceding our technology to companies that just want to make it in China.”
Energy officials did not respond to NPR’s written questions. Energy Department spokeswoman Charisma Troiano said only that she did not believe the law “has anything to do with” the Department of Energy.
In June 2021, the department implemented stronger guidelines for a 1984 law requiring U.S.-made cars, except under special circumstances. But Paul said recent congressional legislation and possible new laws have more leverage.
“We’ve fallen too far behind,” he said. “Policy momentum comes from these efforts. It’s good that lawmakers are responding.”
Paul said he believes bipartisan support in Congress for the additional law will lead to new U.S. factories in the coming years.
Northwest News reporter Courtney Flatt contributed to this story.