“Time to act is now:” Tesla chair says Australia can and should make EVs and batteries
Tesla chair Robyn Denholm says Australia has a unique opportunity to play a role in the growing electric vehicle and battery sector, but it will take the teamwork of private and government stakeholders to make it happen.
The Australian car manufacturing industry was closed down in Australia in 2017 by the Coalition government. The closures of the Ford, Toyota and Holden factories saw thousands put out of work.
Although a government report says 82% of those were able to find other work, the lack of locally made cars has seen the Australian car market at the behest of overseas considerations.
Not least of these is the growing EV industry. Because many first world global markets have legislated fuel emissions standard, many electric car models are prioiritsed there first.
Even when models are confirmed for Australia, local arms of carmakers struggle to secure enough inventory to meet demand. Only Tesla, and other electric-only brands like Polestar and BYD, are free of emissions legislation handcuffs (although participating in pools to earn carbon credits can also be a factor.)
But Denholm, a UNSW graduate and ex-Toyota who replaced Elon Musk as Tesla chair in 2018 after the infamous “taking Tesla private” tweet, says Australia doesn’t have to be at the end of the queue for
Nor for batteries, the minerals for which Australia has an abundance of. According to the federal government’s Austrade, Australia is the second largest source for cobalt and lithium on the planet, and fifth for manganese ore.
“Australia is in a unique position because we have the minerals here that other countries don’t have,” she told the National Press Club on Wednesday, as reported by the SMH.
“The supply chains for the electric vehicle and the lithium-ion storage batteries that are key for renewable energy are being formed now. That’s why I think it’s a unique opportunity,” she was quoted as saying.
But it will take work. Although she says the business case will be clear for investors and stakeholders, “I do think the private sector and government need to work together.
“I don’t think that incentives are required because most business people will see the exponential growth that’s going to happen over the next period of time in those minerals,” she said.
“And moving up the value chain is important for job creation but it’s also important in terms of the economics that can be yielded with that. And that’s why, from my perspective, the time to act on that is
Time is particularly of the essence because of the rate at which Tesla is growing. As one of the largest makers of electric cars, it is on track for another record year of production.
It is now ramping up in both its Berlin and Texas gigafactories, and Reuters reports that it is considering building its own lithium refinery in Texas if it can convince the state to give tax breaks.
At the company’s second-quarter 2022 earnings call Musk was vocal about the need for more players in the lithium refining industry also. “You can’t lose. It’s licensed to print money.”
Elon Musk also said at the company’s annual shareholder meeting that the EV maker will announce a new factory location by the end of 2022.
While he teased a Canadian factory could be on the cards, joking about his half-Canadian heritage, a location has not yet been confirmed.
Asked whether Australia’s distance from export markets means it doesn’t make sense to make batteries and cars in Australia, Denholm said Australia’s cost base could in fact make it competitive for advanced manufacturing.
“Tesla is a prime example of that – we’re producing vehicles in California, which is one of the most expensive places on the planet, and shipping them all around the world,” she said.
“So, to me, the fact that we don’t currently have a car manufacturing industry in Australia is actually not a bad thing because we have the skills, and we can retool and get people into advanced manufacturing.”
Bridie Schmidt is associate editor for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She has been writing about electric vehicles since 2018, and has a keen interest in the role that zero-emissions transport has to play in sustainability. She has participated in podcasts such as Download This Show with Marc Fennell and Shirtloads of Science with Karl Kruszelnicki and is co-organiser of the Northern Riv