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Electric vehicle manufacturing in China drives metal demand

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

As the world’s largest country by population and second-largest economy, China is embarking on a dedicated effort to become a leader in the emerging electric vehicle market. Hundreds of manufacturing firms in China seek to take advantage of the vast national investment directed at renewable energy and battery storage technology. This also motivates China to capitalize on metal resources necessary for launching the electric vehicle industry.

In 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the “Made in China 2025” initiative, a ten year state-led policy to prepare China’s manufacturing base to be strongly competitive in the future global economy. Sponsoring companies that are making electric vehicles is a component of this plan. The Wall Street Journal recorded that there were 487 electric car manufacturers in China in 2018.

“This (large number of firms) is inevitable, because whenever there is an emerging technology or emerging industry, there must be a hundred schools of thought and a hundred flowers blooming,” explained Zhou Xuan, general manager of Automagic; a Hangzhou based electric vehicle designer.

One of these startups, Singulato, attracted foreign interest earlier this year when Itochu Corp (ITOCY: NASDAQ), a Japanese trading house, invested $9 million into the company. The deal is expected to open the door for Singulato to cooperate with Japanese automakers as they work to keep up with production quotas for electric cars in China. The world’s second-largest semiconductor manufacturer, Intel, also owns a small stake in Singulato.

Another company, Nio (NIO: NYSE), has the ambition of becoming an international competitor to Tesla (TSLA: NASDAQ) with a focus on sports utility vehicles. In September the startup filed a $1.8 billion initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. Like Tesla, Nio is working to incorporate autonomous driving systems into their electric car models.

In 2017, 2.1% of new vehicles sold in China were electric plug-in vehicles, 96% of which were produced domestically. The Wall Street Journal reported that 777,000 electric vehicles were sold in China in 2017, up from 8,159 in 2011. CNBC reported in 2018 that one quarter of the Chinese car market is expected to be composed of electric vehicles by 2030 while Europe, the next largest electric vehicle market, will see electric vehicles make up 23% of new vehicles sold. The growth of the electric car market in China is possible through extensive tax credits and subsidization while Europe is using high fuel taxes and emission standards to discourage consumers from buying conventional fuel cars.

Chinese vehicle battery companies are also present in the United States. A123 Systems, an energy storage system startup was founded in 2001 with operations in Michigan, Massachusetts, Germany, and Hangzhou, China. The company focused on technology developed by MIT and received loans from the Department of Energy to manufacture batteries in the U.S in 2010. In 2012, after undergoing bankruptcy filings, A123 Systems became a subsidiary of the Wanxiang America Corporation, a subsidiary of the Hangzhou based Wanxiang Group. Wanxiang is one of the largest auto parts manufacturers in China with a record of acquiring distressed companies like A123 to establish a $4 billion subsidiary focused on the U.S. auto-parts marketplace.

With the rise of the electric vehicle industry (among other technology related sectors), China seeks to capitalize on raw materials for battery manufacturing. Lithium and cobalt are two important metal resources for developing batteries. Lithium is extracted from a brine found below salt-flats while cobalt is extracted from copper and nickel deposits.

South America’s “lithium triangle” is estimated to hold 54% of the world’s lithium carbonate reserves. In 2016, Chile was the world’s largest exporter of lithium at 62% of global exports, amounting to $494 million worth of total exports. Japan, South Korea, and China were the three largest importers of Lithium at 22%, 18% and 18% of global imports respectively. South Korea, China, and Japan were also Chile’s largest buyers of lithium.

Lithium’s increased production and performance has made it far more accessible to the consumer. The International Energy Agency reported that in 2010 there were only 400 megawatt hours of lithium ion batteries installed worldwide with a cost of $1,000 per kilowatt hour to the consumer. In 2017 there were 94.2 gigawatt hours installed with a cost of $209 per kilowatt hour. Capacity for lithium ion batteries grew 235.5 times larger than its size in 2010 while cost decreased by nearly a factor of five. Reuters reported that in China the price of lithium nearly halved from $24,750 per tonne in March of 2018 to $13,000 in August due to a surplus of supply by 22,000 tonnes over 277,000 tonnes demanded.

One third of the world’s cobalt reserves can be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Central Africa. The Congo is by far the largest exporter of cobalt, accounting for 31% of the world’s total exports in 2016 valued at $760 million according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Cobalt made up 17% of the DRC’s exports. 99.3% of the Congo’s cobalt exports went to China. China was the largest importer of cobalt at 38% of the world’s total imports valued at $953 million. 79% of China’s cobalt imports came from the DRC.

According to Bloomberg, eight of the fourteen largest cobalt mines in the DRC are owned by a company based in China, accounting for roughly half of the DRC’s total cobalt production. Similar to lithium, cobalt has declined in price in China due to increased supply.

Chinese firms have been known to partner with American and European corporations to conduct joint cobalt mining ventures in the Congo. Phoenix based Freeport-Mcmoran (FCX: NYSE) had considered selling their Kisanfu exploration project in the DRC as well as their Kokkola refinery in Finland to China Molybdenum Co Ltd earlier in 2018. Another Chinese cobalt firm GEM agreed in March to buy 52,800 tonnes of cobalt from Anglo-Swiss mining company Glencore (GLEN.LN: LSE).

International mining experts have spoken of the potential for China to vest control over the world’s supply of cobalt due to its focus on the Congo.

“If cobalt falls into the hands of the Chinese, yeah you won’t see EVs being produced in Europe etc. They are waking up too late … I think it’s because the car industry has never had a supply chain problem before,” said Glencore’s chief executive Ivan Glasenberg.

In 2016 the United States sourced roughly half of its cobalt imports from Europe and 98% of its lithium carbonate imports from Argentina and Chile. However, the U.S. relies on China for one third of its battery imports, potentially enabling China to influence the U.S. electric vehicle supply chain.

Technology companies like Tesla have expressed concern for how cobalt is sourced in the Congo. Mining cobalt is extremely labor intensive in a severely underdeveloped region and the Congolese Government ranks 156 out 176 nations in terms of transparency. Ongoing armed conflicts and persistent poverty have led to the extensive use of child labor to mine cobalt.

The largest corporate supplier of cobalt in the world is Zhejiang based Huayou which is deeply involved in mining operations in the DRC. Huayou utilizes its subsidiary Congo Dongfang Mining to source cobalt from the DRC via an assortment of independent traders at the site of local markets. The company admitted in a Washington Post interview that it had “insufficient awareness of supply chain management” in regards to child labor in the region.

China’s interest in the cobalt market extends to refining mined material for application. Bloomberg listed that China’s downstream cobalt refining companies included Huayou, Jinchuan, and GEM.

For its part, the United States is in competition with China to develop an electric vehicle market. As of 2017 there were 760,000 electric vehicles in circulation in the U.S, ranking the country third behind the European Union and China for the total number of electric vehicles in its marketplace. The U.S. also imported $375 million worth of cobalt and $79.5 million worth of lithium in the year 2016.

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