Electric cars have yet to populate U.S. roads and highways, but car and battery makers already are concerned about the possibility of a battle for raw materials – and how the issue could affect the nation’s energy security.

Speaking at the Plug-In 2008 conference in San Jose, Calif. Wednesday, an executive at the car-battery maker, Johnson Controls-Saft, said discussions about securing adequate lithium supply for making lithium-ion batteries should start now. The company already has started preliminary conversations about the issue with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., said Michael Andrew, director of government affairs and external communications at the company.

“My personal opinion is we don’t want to trade an oil cartel with a lithium cartel,” Andrew said at a panel discussion about battery technologies.

Most of the lithium on the market comes from the South American countries of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. China holds about 30 percent of the world’s lithium reserve, Andrew said.

Strong raw-material demand from developing countries such as China and India has pushed up prices and caused headaches for players in many industries. The emergence of green technologies, from solar power to electric cars, could lead to a greater competition for resources.

At the Intersolar conference in San Francisco last week, Abengoa Solar executive Fred Morse said the price for steel had jumped 30 percent since the company announced a plan in February to build a large solar farm in Arizona. “If you don’t think that scares us – it does. The commodity price is a real concern,” he said at a Greentech Media seminar.

At the Plug-In conference on Tuesday, the head of Ford’s hybrid-vehicle program, Nancy Gioia, said the car industry has to figure out how to better compete for materials.

“The discussion must go beyond comparing electricity cost to fuel cost,” Gioia said. “Steel, aluminum and copper are components for cars and batteries, and their prices have been steadily increasing.”

The electric car market isn’t here yet. Auto makers and their components suppliers are working furiously to bring low- to zero-emission cars to the market. All-electric cars won’t be available for the mass market for several years. In the meantime, carmakers such as General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen plan to launch plug-in hybrid electric cars by 2010.

Unlike traditional gasoline-electric hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, plug-in hybrids can recharge their batteries at standard electrical outlets and can get more than 100 miles per gallon by replacing fuel with electricity.

Some companies, such as A123Systems’ Hymotion, have begun selling kits – including extra batteries and a plug – to convert Prius cars into plug-in hybrids (see Toyota Dealers Sold on Hymotion Plug-In Hybrids).

The Prius uses nickel-metal hydride batteries. But carmakers, including Toyota, are investing in lithium-ion batteries for their future fleets (see Toyota Drives Towards Greener Fleet). Japanese carmakers also recently teamed up to work on setting technical standards for lithium-ion batteries, a move that could give them advantages over their competitors in the United States and Europe (see Japan, U.S. Strive to Set Car Battery Standards).

Lithium-ion batteries are commonly found in laptops and cell phones these days, but their ability to hold a large amount of charge in a compact casing makes them a good option for plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars. Designing them so that they are cheap and safe for the mass car market is a major challenge, however.

Startups are getting into the game. Lithium-ion battery company ActaCell on Wednesday announced it has raised $5.8 million in its first round of funding from Google.org's RechargeIT program, Applied Ventures, the venture-capital arm of Applied Materials, and Good Energies.

Andrew said lithium supply is adequate for now, but could pose a problem when electric cars of all types become popular, which he expects to be around 2015.

“As good business people, we need to anticipate our needs for the supply in the future,” Andrew said.

Johnson Controls-Saft is a joint venture between Johnson Controls in Milwaukee, Wis., and Saft in France. In January, the joint venture announced the opening of a €15 million ($23.53 million) lithium-ion car battery plant in Nersac, France.