Major carmakers like Volkswagen, Daimler and
Stellantis have been racing to secure battery cell supplies in Europe, but may
face a bigger challenge as they seek to go electric – finding enough battery
Failure to obtain adequate supplies of lithium,
nickel, manganese or cobalt could slow the shift to electric vehicles (EVs),
make those vehicles more expensive and threaten carmakers’ profit margins.
“There is a serious question as to whether supply can
keep up with demand across the battery supply chain,” says Daniel Harrison, an
auto analyst at Ultima Media.
Until recently, Europe was seen as having lost the
battery race to the dominant Asian manufacturers like CATL in China, South
Korea’s LG Chem, and Japan’s Panasonic, says Ilka von Dalwigk from EIT
InnoEnergy, which has set up a company network funded by the European Union in
the “European Battery Alliance”.
“Nobody saw that as a problem,” says von Dalwigk.
“The thinking was that we can import battery cells.”
But forecasts from banks like UBS that EV sales would
soar over the coming decade shook the political establishment and carmakers,
and forced a rethink of battery production.
of battery plants
This was followed by EU funding programmes worth
billions and major battery plant announcements by car manufacturers and
suppliers. Volkswagen alone plans six battery plants in Europe, while Daimler
will build four with partners.
Recently, battery cell factory announcements have
come thick and fast, and EIT InnoEnergy now lists almost 50 planned projects in
If all those plans become reality, local production
should meet demand around 2030. About 640 gigawatt hours (GWh) would be
available, enough for average annual production of 13 million cars.
By 2030, Ultima Media estimates global worldwide
supply at 2,140 GWh, with demand at 2,212 GWh.
Ultima Media’s Harrison projects Volkswagen’s six
planned plants would allow the Wolfsburg-based company to cover around two
thirds of its own battery needs.
The problem lies with raw materials like lithium,
nickel, manganese and cobalt.
Market experts from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence
(BMI) speak of “the great raw material disconnect” – high investments in cell
factories, but missing investments in raw material extraction.
Within a year, the price for lithium carbonate has
more than doubled, explains Caspar Rawles, head of price and data analysis at
In the case of cobalt, where the largest deposits are
located in Democratic Republic of the Congo and are sometimes extracted under
miserable working conditions, an increase in price is also expected.
At the very beginning of the supply chain, it takes
around seven years for new mines to be developed.
“Europe is not the only region that is raising its
e-car targets and reducing CO2 emissions,” said Rawles.
A global race is under way.
The automotive industry is currently experiencing
painful production disruptions due to the shortage of semiconductors.
Some carmakers, including Volkswagen, are trying to
secure the supply of raw materials with exclusive supply contracts.
So far, lithium has mainly come from Australia and
Chile, cobalt from the Congo, and graphite from China. The largest processors
of cathode and anode material are also located there, and in Japan.
But imports can become more expensive due to tariff
increases in trade disputes and interrupted by logistics problems, as a tanker
accident that blocked the Suez Canal recently showed.
And long journeys are bad for those focused on making
batteries with as few CO2 emissions as possible.
One answer is investments in raw material extraction
in Europe – lithium is particularly available.
Startup Vulcan Energy is working on obtaining lithium
CO2-neutrally from thermal water in Germany’s Upper Rhine plain and has already
signed up Renault as a customer.
“We would need a lot of projects like Vulcan Energy –
with one in every European country we would have a chance to build the supply
chain in Europe,” says Harrison.
EIT InnoEnergy estimates by 2030 Europe could tap a
quarter of the raw materials it needs, so is working on raising more money that
could trigger further investments.
Recycling is another option. But here, too, Europe
lags far behind China.
Currently, quality issues mean only 10% to 20% of
demand could be met with recycled material, says von Dalwigk.
There is a risk the shift to e-mobility will be
slowed down, says Harrison.
He adds, though, that he believes the European
Commission and EU member states will have to take action – such as more
subsidies for exploring reserves and recycling – “because so much is at stake
economically and ecologically.”