The Coming Electric Car Battery Glut

JCI Battery Plant

Planners from Johnson Controls map out a new battery facility in Holland Michigan. Government grants, like the $299 million supplied to Johnson Controls by the Department of Energy, could mean 20,000 new jobs and a future glut of lithium ion automotive batteries.

In advance of this fall’s launch of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, lithium ion battery manufacturers are breaking ground on manufacturing plants
nearly every month. About $2 billion in federal stimulus funding has spurred the
building of facilities in Michigan and Indiana that will start churning out battery
packs by the end of the year. But the escalation in production has the potential to outstrip the demand for the batteries by as early as 2012.

As I said on NPR’s “All Things Considered” earlier this week, the battery companies have understandable motivations to quickly ramp up production. For battery companies to receive the full amount of stimulus grants and loans, they must meet specified goals for production capacity. What happens if these production goals exceed the high consumer demand for electrified vehicles anticipated by automakers?

During 2010 and 2011, consumers and fleet operators who are eager to own EVs will scoop up the first units that off the line without much concern for economics. For these early adopters, the first electric cars and plug-in hybrids are “must haves.” But that is likely to be a niche market, numbering in the thousands to 10s of thousands. Remember that only about 1,000 Tesla Roadsters have been sold so far. The market appeal of EVs will have to be broadened beginning in 2012-13 to attract a more cost-conscious consumer, and that adjustment period could impact battery manufacturers who are likely to then be in full production.

Battery Glut: Bad for Battery Makers, Good for Consumers

If gasoline stays under $4 per gallon for the next few years, the EV audience is unlikely to take off as quickly as the auto industry hopes. Other confounding factors for the battery market include possible delays in new vehicles, and a slower than expected rebound by the global economy. A slower than expected increase in the size of the EV market could hurt start-up battery companies more than their larger diversified competitors because they will feel pressure to lower the prices of the batteries—to make the vehicles more appealing to consumers—and to run plants at lower volumes will further reduce revenues.

On the other hand, lower prices for batteries could mean lower prices for electric cars, considering that batteries are the most expensive component. Battery costs are forecast to drop by as much as 15 percent year in the next two to three years. A lithium ion battery glut could push prices even lower. The effect on start-up battery companies could be deadly, but a glut could speed up the transition from petroleum to battery-powered vehicles.

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  • Carl

    The same thing happened with fibre optic internet equipment.
    As soon as you start believing the forecasts are real the end is near.

  • Max Reid

    If 1,000 people can buy Tesla, then more than 10,000 people could buy Volt and Leaf. Oil prices are going to hit $100 soon, no other go, we have to go for Plugins & EVs’

  • Dan L

    Price matters.
    If these battery manufacturers price their batteries at $2000/kwh then they’re selling into a niche market: people who want electric cars regardless of cost.
    If they price their batteries at $200/kwh, then they’re selling into a huge market: people who want the cheapest possible commute.

    If they are in between, who knows?

    The real question is not whether they built too much capacity, but what price they can sell at and still make a profit.

  • AP

    What this article describes is exactly what one should expect when the government gets involved in determining “winners and losers” in the market. The electric battery (and car) market runs the risk of going the way of ethanol based on corn: only viable if large government subsidies are used.

    This is no way to determine energy technology or usage. If we really want to pull ourselves off foreign oil and encourage alternatives, we need to tax fuel more, and tax income less (to keep money in the economy). Then there is a market for, well, whatever is the best replacement!

    Why should we be so fixated on whether electric or hybrids or something else wins? Set the table with tax policy, no subsidies, and let the market decided.

    Our government can’t afford to spend borrowed money on temporary jobs for artificially created markets. It also isn’t fair to communities where factories and research centers are built, only to be closed when the market inevitaby collapses (along with the community’s real estate market).

  • Simon Saba

    I totally agree with Carl and I was part of the early fiber optic market in those days. Projections were for endless demand for bandwidth , which drove a tremendous amount of investment which in turn created supply that exceeded demand and drove prices way down. Those drastically lower prices in effect created the demand because bandwidth became abundant and cheap. The internet would be a tiny sliver of what it is today if it wasn’t for the overcapacity that was created in 2000-2001 period.

  • Tina Juarez

    France Chance!! I was hearing the same thing 3 years ago when I bought my second battery pack! My friend said HE heard the same thing back in the 90’s when he was on his 4th battery pack!!
    Batteries are not computers. Is there EVer a glut for AA or AAA? No, & never will be! The trade off for EVs is you buy your fuel years in advance of your use of it… you become a commodity trader… apart from distribution or demand “accidents” the price remains fairly stable. Unlike wheat, you are not assured of a supply. A company can buy your target tech. and put it on the shelf as was done with NiMH. A glut??? I should be so lucky!!! Just get something out of OEM and on the market, PLEASE.

  • TommyTexasRowlett

    As the price of battery packs are reduced, their market expands exponentially.

    I’d rather make $1 each on a million units than $10 each on 1000 units ($1,000,000 vs $10,000). If battery manufacturers are smart they’ll bring costs down as soon as possible.

  • Don Siefkes

    It may come as a surprise to many people, but the ethanol tax credit of $.45/gallon is claimed by the “blender of record”, that is, the entity that blends gasoline with 10% ethanol for standard 87 octance gasoline. Guess what — the “blenders of record” in the U.S. are the oil companies so they received another $4.5 billlion in tax credits in addition to all the other tax advantages that accrue to oil companies. These other tax credits and allowances such as the oil depletion allowance, the faster write-off of depreciation, write-offs for research and development dwarf the $4.5 billion ethanol credit. Likewise, the DOE is handing out money right and left for Tesla corporation and other electric car manufacturers. I agree that all of this should be done away with and let everyone compete with no tax advantages or credits at all. What you would see is that E100, straight ethanol denatured with either iso-propyl alcohol or ether, would win in a landslide. If this were ever tried, you would see all 400 employees of the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, D.C. descend enmasse upon the Capitol to preserve their credits, including the ethanol one. Hopefully, one our Representatives or Seantors will try this. Would be fun to see!

  • Norm

    Battery manufactures will charge whatever they can get for their batteries. A “glut” of batteries on the market won’t happen, if the batteries prices were based on production just like the oil companies in producing gasoline, then the battery companies will just hold back production on the batteries so the prices will stay high.

    Another way to think of it would be DeBeers, for the most part they own the world supply of diamonds, diamonds are not rare, but they artificially hold back supply to the market to keep price high.

    Businesses go by a truth, the rarer you make something, the more people will pay. But battery producers will find a production rate that keeps the supply flowing without themselves, or their distributors being forced to warehouse large quantities, that costs money. So there will be no battery supply glut. And don’t expect for any appreciable drop in battery prices.

  • tapra1

    arger diversified competitors because they will feel pressure to lower the prices of the batteries—to make the vehicles more appealing to consumers—and to run plants at lower volumes will further reduce revenues. Fast Newsletter

  • Brian_32

    This is no way to determine energy technology or usage. If we really want to pull ourselves off foreign oil and encourage alternatives, we need to tax fuel more, and tax income less (to keep money in the economy). Then hopefully the market for hybrid cars and EV’s will have grown to the point where we can afford them, ideally with much better battery life! There was talk of UK retail giant Tesco getting in on the market, – hopefully if this is the case costs will plummet!