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Li-ion under the pandemic

COVID-19 cuts energy minerals demand but heightens future shortages: Benchmark

by Greg Klein | April 20, 2020

The pandemic will shrink lithium-ion battery demand by at least 25% this year even prior to further economic setbacks. But electric vehicles hold greater likelihood than many other industries not only for recovery but growth. Current reductions in lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel supply will only mean greater need later this decade, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

COVID-19 cuts energy minerals demand but heightens future supply shortages

In an April 16 webinar presented by managing director Simon Moores and head of price assessments Caspar Rawles, the two warned that pandemic conditions and responses will worsen an already critical supply scenario later this decade.

That “lost quarter” of a 25% reduction in demand will likely be just the beginning, Moores said. “If there’s going to be a longer economic impact, which is most likely going to happen, a severe economic impact globally, then of course we lose more than a quarter.”

Yet exponential growth should continue for Li-ion battery megafactories. Five years ago just three such plants were in production or planned, with capacity totalling 57 gigawatt hours. By 2018 the number of plants climbed to 52, for 1,147 GWh. This year the figures jumped to 130 plants totalling 2,300 GWh now in production or slated for completion by 2030. That’s enough for 43 million EVs averaging 55 kWh each.

That future seems distant, compared with the current production limitations brought on by health-related mine suspensions, along with delayed expansions and development of new mines. Transportation challenges also loom large, such as the South Africa lockdown that restricts cobalt transshipment from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As the pandemic cuts supply, it curtails demand as well. Chinese automakers, the main producers of EVs, have largely shut down.

Lithium faced over-supply well before the pandemic, prompting cutbacks among majors like SQM, Albemarle, Ganfeng and Tianqi. “Also we saw that the majority of Tier 2 or 3 converters in China were already planning on going offline due to the low pricing we’ve seen in the market,” Rawles said.

So what that means down the road is those expansions which really need to be happening now to meet the future demand are not happening.—Caspar Rawles,
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence

“The key thing is that downturn in conversion capacity in China will mean that the backlog of spodumene feedstock material that’s sitting in China will take longer to work through, so we’re looking at a longer-term potential low-price environment,” he explained. “That threatens the economics of new projects of course and an increased risk of price volatility going forward…. So what that means down the road is those expansions which really need to be happening now to meet the future demand are not happening.”

What does a typical (35 GWh) NCM Li-ion battery plant consume in a year? Benchmark estimates 25,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide or carbonate, 6,000 tonnes of cobalt hydroxide, 19,000 tonnes of nickel sulphate and 33,000 tonnes of graphite.

“The supply chain won’t be able to build quick enough to meet this electric vehicle demand,” emphasized Moores. Even if estimates of EV growth were cut by 25% to 30%, “you’re still not going to have enough mining capacity, chemical capacity in the supply chain to make these. The lithium-ion supply chain has to grow by eight to 10 times in a seven-year period, and now that might be pushed to a 10-year period.”

You’ve got a big lithium problem on the horizon, [supplying] only 19 million EVs, compared to the 34 million we think we’re going to need.—Simon Moores,
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence

Production from current mines and those likely to enter operation suggest about 900,000 tonnes of annual lithium supply by 2030, enough to power about 19 million EVs. That constitutes “a big, big problem,” Moores said. “You’ve got a big lithium problem on the horizon, [supplying] only 19 million EVs, compared to the 34 million we think we’re going to need.”

Showing “a similar trajectory,” cobalt supply estimates come to 228,000 tonnes by 2030, enough for only about 17.9 million EVs.

“The mining companies are being super-cautious or even beyond super-cautious, considering we’re going to need 34 million EVs-worth. And even if that goes down to 25 million, you’re still way off,” he added.

Future demand will continue to be dominated by China, Benchmark maintains. Of the 130 battery plants currently expected by 2030, China would host 93. The country’s capacity would equal about 1,683 GWh, enough for 31 million EVs averaging 55 kWh. A dismal second, Europe follows with 16 plants totalling 413 GWh for 7.4 million EVs. The U.S. would have just seven plants for 205 GWh and 3.7 million EVs.

Currently producing about 73% of Li-ion batteries, China’s forecast to maintain that proportion with about 70% of global production in 2029.

For all that, Moores said European megafactories and Tesla’s U.S.-based Gigafactories set an example for supply chains in other industries.

“What the coronavirus has shown is that truly global supply chains in the 21st century don’t work. They’re too fragile, there’s too many question marks out there. Even pre-coronavirus that was the case…. The battery industry was well ahead of the curve on localizing the supply chain as much as possible…. That will continue, I think it’s a blueprint for other industries to follow. The battery supply chain is ahead of the curve on that.”

But, he cautioned, “the U.S. has to take on the same scale as China.”


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