Tom Eblen

Industry might be our next Toyota

This could be huge.

In fact, an industry consortium's selection of Kentucky to become the research, development and manufacturing center for the next generation of high-tech automobile batteries could be the most important news for this state's economy in a generation.

At the announcement Monday in Frankfort, Gov. Steve Beshear and other officials compared it to Toyota's decision more than two decades ago to base its U.S. operations in Kentucky.

The comparison seems appropriate. Maybe even be an understatement.

Toyota did much more than build a high-tech assembly plant and other facilities that now employ 8,300 people. It created synergies with other nearby auto plants that attracted more than 100 suppliers and launched a big part of Kentucky's advanced manufacturing economy.

More than 80,000 people in Kentucky now work at making the current generation of petroleum-fueled vehicles. It's clear, though, that the vehicles of the future will run partially, if not completely, on batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries, with their small size and long life, have enabled big advances in consumer electronics. The next big thing in automobile manufacturing will be figuring out how to make batteries that can efficiently run vehicles.

President Obama has pledged $2 billion toward figuring out how to put more energy-efficient hybrid vehicles on the road.

The National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Batteries, a consortium of more than 50 battery-making companies and related groups, is seeking some of that federal money to build a $600 million advanced battery manufacturing facility in Hardin County.

Construction would create 1,500 jobs, and the facility would eventually employ 2,000. And, as with Toyota, the possibilities for suppliers and associated manufacturers could create many thousand more jobs.

The battery plant will have close ties to the nation's first high-tech battery research and development laboratory in Lexington, which Beshear announced last week. The lab is a joint venture of the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.

In describing the significance of this project Monday, the Toyota comparison wasn't the only one officials used.

They likened what the battery industry wants to do in Kentucky to what the semiconductor industry did in Austin, Texas, beginning in the late 1980s.

Like the battery industry now, the American semiconductor industry then was losing its edge to Asian competitors. The industry formed the SEMATECH consortium to focus research, development and manufacturing efforts. SEMATECH was a big success, and it did wonders for Austin's economy and high-tech image.

Battery innovation and development isn't just key to the future of automobile manufacturing, said Kris Kimel, president of the non-profit Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. There's an urgent need for better batteries to store energy from all kinds of sources for all kinds of uses.

"Battery technology and the quest to develop better batteries is a key aspect of the whole emerging alternative energy market," Kimel said. "It's an excellent place for Kentucky to play."

The history of economic development in Kentucky has often been one of missed opportunities, of selling the state short. Rarely have Kentucky's leaders recognized the next big thing and successfully gone after it.

That's why former Gov. Martha Layne Collins' pursuit of Toyota two decades ago was such a milestone, and why Beshear's pursuit of this deal could be another.

This effort puts Kentucky at the center of research, innovation and development for an entire industry trying to solve one of technology's biggest challenges.

For a state hoping to be a player in the 21st century economy, this could be huge.

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