The Gold Report: Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA:NASDAQ) is planning to build a $5-billion “Gigafactory” in the southwestern U.S. that would produce batteries for its high-end electric cars. You seem excited about it. Tell investors why they should be.
Simon Moores: This one plant would essentially double the world’s output of electric vehicle (EV) batteries. That’s 500,000 batteries a year at capacity. The idea is to drive down the cost of EV batteries by 30% or more. Tesla is focusing on the supply chain to build the lowest-cost batteries possible. If it can make the cost of its cars much cheaper, it should spark mass uptake of electric vehicles. It’s a plan to turn the world electric, in a sense, and Tesla begins in 2017 with the Gigafactory and the launch of its third generation and first mass-market model.
TGR: Would Tesla be building batteries solely for Tesla or would it be leasing its technology to other vehicle manufacturers?
SM: It’s a good question. At the moment, Tesla is partnering with Panasonic Corp. (PCRFY:OTC.MKTS) to build batteries for its electric vehicles. But Tesla wants to build the batteries itself, the majority of which would supply Tesla’s car assembly plant in California. But there would be more batteries than Tesla could use initially, so it is looking to sell batteries elsewhere, too.
TGR: Initially, there was some chatter about Apple Inc. (AAPL:NASDAQ) being involved.
SM: I heard that rumor as well. Initially I thought that Apple could be involved in the design of the electric vehicles, but to be honest Tesla has done a pretty good job without its neighbors.
In terms of a battery offtake with Apple, I haven’t heard anything on this but I believe the plant will only be producing EV batteries, which are much bigger than the portable energy batteries that Apple uses.
TGR: Why would Tesla build a plant to produce EV batteries in the U.S. while others already exist in Asia?
SM: Mainly because that’s where Tesla’s cars are made. The commercial battery industry is really an Asian one, centered on Japan and South Korea. It’s just the way it’s developed since the 1990s with leading companies like Sony.
But the thing that really has people excited is the size of the project. Something on this scale could see the return of manufacturing for the 21st century in North America. Asia is where the battery industry grew and developed over the last 20 years. That’s where the U.S. missed out.
Companies like Apple have led the U.S. tech revolution but Apple creates its ideas in California, yet manufactures them in China. With something like Tesla’s Gigafactory, there is a chance for high-value manufacturing to come back to the U.S.
TGR: Would such a plant create greater competition for the world’s graphite and ultimately result in higher graphite prices?
SM: It’s definitely going to have an impact on the graphite industry. Should Tesla choose to use natural flake graphite, the demand for battery-grade material could go up 154%. For example, we’ve estimated 83,000–126,000 tons (80–126 Kt) of flake graphite would be needed to supply this plant in the form of spherical battery-grade graphite.
About 375 Kt of flake graphite was produced in 2013, so 126 Kt would be an increase of 34% of total flake graphite demand but 154% of battery-grade graphite demand. That’s all from one plant. If the supply of the right quality material isn’t there, then we could see supply squeezes and price spikes.
TGR: Why wouldn’t Tesla use natural flake graphite?
SM: At the moment, both synthetic and natural graphite are used in the batteries. That’s just the way these batteries have been developed. Natural graphite is cheaper than synthetic graphite so it’s a balancing act. If Tesla wants to drive down the price of batteries by 30% or more, it is going to have to go all the way to the raw materials to cut costs.
Graphite is the biggest input material by volume into a Tesla battery, with lithium second. So this is where the company must start if it wants to hit its 30% cost reduction goal.
TGR: A proven method of supply is an offtake agreement with a graphite producer. Do you think Tesla would take this approach?
SM: It could but there are many options to secure long-term supply. Everything is on the table because of the quantity of materials that is going to be needed.
TGR: If Tesla decides to go with natural flake graphite, do you think it would be likely go with a “Sourced-in-America” solution or could it come from any number of projects around the world?
SM: Both. I think sourced in North America is one option that fits well with the company’s ethos and with the graphite exploration boom centered in Quebec and Ontario, that is a good place to start.
But, I would imagine Tesla’s search will take it globally. After all the scale and purpose of the Gigafactory is a global one and not just American.
I think the company will focus on responsibly operated mines run by Western companies. These might be in North America, Australia or Europe. The mines could be run by these companies but located in Africa.
It will be a combination of multiple sources I think because Tesla needs supply security and that comes with diversity.
TGR: What other materials are needed for EV batteries?
SM: The main battery raw materials are graphite and lithium, then cobalt. I would call those the critical materials that Tesla will be sourcing. They are small industries, yet the most critical raw materials that make the battery.
There are some peripheral ones as well, such as copper and aluminum, but these are more abundant materials and lower risk.
TGR: Let’s assume that the Gigafactory is going ahead and Tesla CEO Elon Musk schedules meetings with the CEOs of some of these junior graphite companies. What’s the pitch?
SM: Tesla needs a responsibly sourced, secure supply of battery-grade graphite and other battery-grade raw materials in significant volumes.
I think if you can prove that your plan is solid and with sound economics, then that’s a good bedrock to go forward in any negotiation. The companies that have been developing battery-grade materials, testing spherical graphite, running lab-scale tests and pilot plants are clearly the ones that are in front.
There are many junior companies with projects that don’t ever intend to become a mine. The company will have to prove to Tesla that it is serious about its plan to begin a new generation of graphite production for the battery age.
TGR: Someone like Elon Musk obviously is a big proponent of environmentally responsible behavior so he wouldn’t work with a company that was environmentally irresponsible.
SM: I agree. Tesla is such a high-profile company that it has to look at the whole supply chain from the car all the way upstream to the mine. Complete supply chain transparency and responsibility is absolutely necessary for high profile, public companies. It’s the reality of the world today.
TGR: What are some publicly traded lithium producers with enough excess supply to meet Tesla’s needs?
SM: Most of the world’s lithium comes from Chile. Of the three critical battery materials, lithium is probably the lowest supply risk because Chile has been a steady supplier since 1996 when lithium was first extracted from brine sources.
Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile S.A. (SQM:NYSE; SQM-B:SSX; SQM-A:SSX) and Rockwood Holdings Inc. (ROC:NYSE) in Chile and FMC Lithium Corp. (FMC:NYSE) in Argentina are the ones that supply the most lithium from brines.
Then there is Talison Lithium, which mines lithium from hard rock in Australia. Interestingly, it was bought last year by the Chinese, its number one customer that was desperate to lock up supply of the hard rock lithium it primarily uses.
TGR: What about cobalt?
SM: Cobalt production is much more fragmented. About 55% of the world’s output comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a byproduct of copper mining.
Tesla, by the way, says that it doesn’t source from the Congo.
The next biggest producers are found in China, Russia and Australia, but they only produce 5–7 Kt annually. Tesla would need about 7 Kt for its plant at capacity. I think that’s a big supply risk.
TGR: This battery plant remains in the concept stage. When is the earliest date it could start producing batteries?
SM: The startup is expected in 2017, and then it would reach capacity in 2020. It’s just a case of scale and trying to secure the raw materials. Three years seems reasonable.
TGR: You are a trusted source for graphite news. There is some consolidation going on in China that could affect supply and, thus, prices. Tell us about that.
SM: The situation in China has changed a lot since the start of 2014. The two primary provinces where graphite is produced—Heilongjiang and Shandong—have been undergoing consolidation.
In January, the government announced that Shandong would shut down graphite-producing operations in a bid to clean up the dust and the wastewater issues stemming from graphite plants. And in April Heilongjiang announced similar moves. That has put a lot of supply at risk. We think anything from 18% to 41% of Chinese supply will come off the market in the next 18 months.
TGR: Is that creating any panic?
SM: Its creating a simmer, but not a panic. Demand is about as low as it has been in the last 18 months. So there is some excess supply should we see any improvement in demand in H2/14. But there is a level of urgency from graphite buyers, who are now looking at the smaller graphite producers in central China. We’ve seen prices move up about $50 per ton within China. We expect that rising price trend to continue.
TGR: That’s not going to make a tremendous difference, but if prices continue to move higher, would that mean better access to financing for graphite companies?
SM: Yes, definitely. Higher prices aren’t necessarily all good for the active industry, but they grab people’s attention. If prices are volatile and are spiking upward, it means that there’s a structural problem with the industry. And the need for new mines becomes apparent.
Also, higher prices make new graphite mines more economically viable.
TGR: Is the price of natural flake graphite the biggest challenge facing the juniors in the space?
SM: That’s one of them. The graphite industry has been flat-lining over the last 10 months or so. Prices have bottomed and prices impact a project’s economics. If there’s stagnation in the market and it doesn’t look as if much is happening, it becomes more difficult to convince someone that a new mine is needed.
But if we look at the history of graphite prices, or any commodity for that matter, it’s in the times of inactivity that we should be preparing for the next boom. We should try to see where new demand is coming from and identify any supply issues. But most people don’t. They usually only act once there’s an issue, not before.
TGR: Please give us your near-term and medium-term price forecasts for graphite (+80 mesh, large flake graphite, 94–97% carbon, CIF Europe).
SM: We’re looking at about $1,250/ton in the near term. But if the situation in China becomes worse and demand returns, prices could go up to in the medium term to $1,400–1,500/ton. It could even push $1,600–1,700/ton should the supply situation worsen.
It’s also important to note that since the last price spike in 2011, nothing has changed on the supply side. There have been no new mines, no expansions, and China is now in the process of cutting back supply through consolidation. This has been in a time of terrible demand. What happens if demand begins to return? People should look at that more closely.
TGR: What were these prices a year ago?
SM: About a year ago, it was about $1,350/ton and the year before that $2,000/ton.
TGR: Generally speaking, what sales numbers are these junior graphite companies using in their preliminary economic assessments and their prefeasibility and feasibility studies?
SM: They would typically use $1,400–1,800/ton on average. A lot of those studies were calculated during the “high times,” which is why a lot of them are going back and revisiting their numbers. But it’s unfair to judge a project on today’s prices because they’re at the bottom, and it’s unfair to judge the projects on the extreme peak we saw in 2011.
TGR: Is there a way to add value to these operations?
SM: The economics of a graphite operation are always going to be difficult for a company that only sells flake graphite concentrate because it is really only selling to the refractory industry, with some lower-grade material going into lubricants and other industrial applications.
Most companies will need to go downstream and produce things like spherical graphite that goes into batteries, “expandable” graphite that is used in mobile phones and iPads to help the batteries dissipate heat, and micronized graphite, which has a host of technical applications.
When companies start producing these products, they are selling for at least double the prices I mentioned. And that’s really how companies should be looking at their businesses. They have to diversify the products and the markets they sell to.
TGR: Investor and consumer confidence is on the rise in the West. Do graphite prices typically rise in line with stronger economies?
SM: Yes, they do. The constant demand for graphite, flake graphite in particular, is in industrial applications driven by steel. Graphite’s price is tied to the performance of steel. So if China, Europe, Germany especially, and the U.S. are producing more steel, they are also using more graphite in refractories.
TGR: What’s one thing investors ought to know about this space?
SM: The markets for critical minerals and metals are constantly volatile. Even when they’re quiet, they’re not quiet for long because of their fundamental structure—usually heavily reliant on one source country.
And these materials usually have high-tech applications where the know-how to produce the material to certain technical specifications lies with only one or two companies.
Most critical minerals and metals are not commodities. They are specialist products produced in tandem with chemists and miners.
TGR: Can investors still make money in the critical materials space?
SM: I’m working on a study of price trends across a lot of these niche minerals and metals to determine the reasons why prices explode and collapse. There are quite common trends across many of the markets for these materials. If investors know when a price is about to snap, then that’s one way to make money. But you have to be monitoring these things. You have to have solid knowledge of what’s happened in the past because, generally, that’s what is going to happen again in the future.
TGR: Thank you for your insights, Simon.
Simon Moores is manager of Industrial Minerals Data, a business that sets prices for natural graphite and fluorspar industries from offices in London and Shanghai. See disclosure and full article here.