Rechargeable Batteries, 2017: Gigafactory Wars in the Offing?
In 2017, the global market for rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries was 126 gigawatt-hours (GWh) valued at $37 billion, growing by $10 billion in two years. Once confined largely to consumer electronics and appliances, the rapid increase in demand was spurred by the adoption of electric cars and buses. Moreover, the falling cost of batteries was sparking interest in another potential huge market-the electrical utility sector. Batteries could be used to store electricity in periods of low demand and release it when demand was high, significantly reducing the need for peak generation capacity. However, historically, the costs of doing this had been prohibitively high. In response to the expected demand, several companies had announced "gigafactories," plants that, combined, could produce many times more output than total global demand in 2017. Tesla, Inc., the electric car maker, was the first. In 2014, it announced a 35 GWh battery plant, costing $5 billion, to be built in Nevada, enough capacity to fulfill global demand in 2013. In 2017, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he would announce an additional four gigafactory locations to supply the global market. Tesla was not alone in its battery ambitions. In late 2016, start-up Alevo began delivery of its new "GridBank" batteries from a 3.5 million square-foot facility in North Carolina, with the potential to scale to 60 GWh. Alevo claimed its batteries lasted four times longer and were safer than the conventional Li-ion batteries used by Tesla. Anxious not to be reliant on third parties, in 2017, several automakers had announced plans to build battery capacity, including General Motors and Daimler. Indeed, Daimler announced two plants for its Mercedes brand cars, one in Germany and one in China. New start-ups were also entering the fray, with Northvolt AB of Sweden partnering with ABB of Switzerland to build a 32 GWh facility. Ten new gigafactories were announced in the first six months of 2017, although not all were Li-ion. For instance, Toyota announced it was to invest in a new solid state technology that would reduce weight and lengthen battery life. Meanwhile, industry global leaders in China and Korea such as CATL, BYD, Samsung and LG Chem were planning their own gigafactory expansions. Whether the market would develop fast enough to absorb this supply, and which technologies would finally win, was unclear in 2017.