Three decades of advances took lithium-ion batteries from powering handheld Sony camcorders to propelling hot-selling electric vehicles from Tesla. The rapid rise is facing a major test in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Demand for rechargeable batteries will decline for the first time this year, as sales of electric cars — the biggest user — slump with novel coronavirus pummeling the auto industry, according to BloombergNEF forecasts. Battery shipments to carmakers are forecast to fall 14 percent in 2020, and the effects of the slowdown are seen lingering into next year.
Major producers, including South Korea’s LG Chem, a supplier to Tesla and GM, have cut annual sales forecasts. Analysts expect the industry’s planned vast expansion of manufacturing capacity to slow down. Startups burning through cash as they work on potential breakthrough technologies are bracing for a tougher sell to secure funds.
And yet, from Silicon Valley laboratories to China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology, or CATL, the world’s top producer, optimism over the lithium-ion battery’s longer-term outlook is undimmed. Batteries, automakers and utility companies say, are still on track to become more powerful, cheaper and ubiquitous, not just in passenger vehicles, but also in additional forms of transport, consumer electronics and large-scale energy storage.
Despite short-term pressures, Zeng Yuqun, chairman of CATL, said there is “great confidence in the long-run.” In less than a decade, his company has grown to lead its industry: CATL’s sales rose 90 percent in 2019, according to BloombergNEF.
Lithium-ion battery demand has more than doubled since 2015 and remains on track to grow by ninefold to the end of the decade from last year. The sector is also forecast to keep lowering costs. Battery prices plunged 87 percent in the past 10 years, pushing plug-in electric cars to near sticker-price parity with some internal combustion models.
The pandemic might even prove to be an opportunity, with at least some governments, including those of Germany and France, using virus recovery funds to help accelerate a transition to battery power from internal combustion engines. France will offer about 8 billion euros ($9 billion) to its auto sector in recovery funds, largely to bolster support for electric vehicles; Germany’s stimulus package includes about 5.6 billion euros for the sector and will require gas stations to install charging units.
“This is a historic plan to confront a historic situation,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on May 26.
There are other sources of optimism. Volkswagen Group on June 16 announced an additional investment of $200 million in QuantumScape, a battery technology startup founded by former Stanford University researchers, after committing $100 million in 2018. In May, the carmaker became the biggest shareholder of Chinese battery producer Guoxuan High-Tech.
“The train’s left the station on both renewable power generation and electric vehicles, and no one is going to put that train in reverse,” said Jeff Chamberlain, chief executive officer of Volta Energy Technologies, a Chicago-based fund focused on energy investments. Chamberlain previously led energy storage initiatives at the Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. government facility seen as having been pivotal in the transfer of battery technology from academia to the auto sector.