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Korean battery makers on alert as Ford pauses CATL plant

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United Auto Workers members walk a picket line during a strike at the Ford Motor's Michigan plant in Wayne, Michigan on Sept. 15. [AP/YOHAP]
United Auto Workers members walk a picket line during a strike at the Ford Motor’s Michigan plant in Wayne, Michigan on Sept. 15. [YONHAP]

Korean battery makers are on the alert after Ford Motor’s recent decision to temporarily pause its Michigan battery plant with Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), which may help them to expand market share in the North American region.

Ford Motor said Monday it is pausing plans to build a $3.5 billion electric vehicle battery plant in Marshall, Michigan, first announced in February. The plant would have used cheap battery technology and technical expertise from CATL.

Ford confirmed that it is not the “final decision,” but just a pause until they’re “confident about their ability to competitively operate the plant,” according to a Reuters report.

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The halt comes as the company faces financial pressure from striking United Auto Workers (UAW) members and political pressure from lawmakers demanding it cut its ties with the Chinese company cooperating on the plant.

The Michigan-based automaker initially said it would hold 100 percent of the CATL plant instead of establishing a joint venture, which contrasts with other recent deals struck between car companies and Korean battery makers.

The technology licensing deal was seen to allow the Ningde, China-based company to gain access to the U.S. market despite the newly passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that makes it difficult for batteries with Chinese components and minerals to be sold in the United States.

Ford Motor CEO Jim Farley announces a $3.5 billion battery plant in Michigan using CATL's LFP battery technology on Feb. 13. [REUTERS/YONHAP]
Ford Motor CEO Jim Farley announces a $3.5 billion battery plant in Michigan using CATL’s LFP battery technology on Feb. 13. [REUTERS/YONHAP]

Republicans in Congress have been investing in Ford’s battery plant plan if it could facilitate the flow of U.S. tax credits to China and leave Ford dependent on Chinese technology.

U.S. lawmaker Rep. Mike Gallagher, chairman of the House Select Committee on China, said lawmakers were “encouraged to see Ford take a crucial first step to reevaluate its deal” with CATL.

“Now, Ford needs to call off this deal for good,” he added.

Experts say the halt could serve as an opportunity for Korean companies to defend their market share in the North American region, where the firms have made aggressive investments since the passage of the IRA.

LG Energy Solution is expected to have 295-gigawatt hours of annual production capacity in the North American region by 2026, followed by SK On with 183.5 gigawatt-hours and Samsung SDI with 67 gigawatt-hours.

Excluding Chinese players, Panasonic is the only rival for Korean companies in the global battery market. Panasonic only supplies to Tesla so far.

SK On is currently building $11.4-billion joint battery plants with Ford in Kentucky and Tennessee, while LG Energy Solution is in talks with Ford and Koc Holding to build a factory in Turkey.

LG Energy Solution was No. 2 in the world’s battery market in the first half with 16.2 percent of the share, while SK On took fourth place with 7.7 percent and Samsung SDI fifth place with 7 percent, according to data from SNE Research.

CATL was No. 1 with 28.6 percent during the same period.

BY SARAH CHEA [chea.sarah@joongang.co.kr]