Tesla May Be Set to Build a New Plant – but Not the One You Think

EV leader Tesla, like the whole automotive industry, is facing a sharp increase in a particular development cost.

Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla  (TSLA) – Get Tesla Inc. Report, has promised that this year he’ll announce the locations of the electric-vehicle manufacturer’s next factories. 

The list should probably include car-assembly plants as the visionary entrepreneur sees Tesla producing 20 million vehicles a year by 2030 to meet soaring demand for electric vehicles.

It’s a competitively strong time for Tesla as its rivals are struggling to manage the supply-chain disruptions triggered by the covid-19 pandemic and worsened by Russia’s Feb. 4 invasion of Ukraine. 

In 2021 the Austin carmaker delivered nearly a million (936,172 units) vehicles and produced almost 1 million (930,422 units).

“I think it’s aggressive, but not impossible, that we could do 20 million cars in 10 years,” the serial entrepreneur declared during the delivery of the first vehicles from the group’s first European plant last March in Germany. 

“And that would be a good number because there’s 2 billion cars and trucks in the world that are in active use, so 20 million would be then 1 percent of the global fleet per year.” 

Lithium Refinery 

But Tesla and its CEO may well have raw-material-refining sites in their planning. The automotive group has just made the case to Texas authorities to build a lithium refinery in the state with the help of tax breaks.

“Tesla is evaluating the possible development of a battery-grade lithium hydroxide refining facility, the first of its kind in North America, as well as facilities to support other types of battery materials processing, refining and manufacturing and ancillary manufacturing operations in support of Tesla’s sustainable product line,” the firm said in a public application filed with the Texas Comptroller’s Office.

This site will process raw ore material into a “usable state for battery production,” Tesla said. “The process Tesla will use is innovative and designed to consume less hazardous reagents and create usable byproducts.”

“The final product, battery-grade lithium hydroxide, will be packaged and shipped by truck and rail to various Tesla battery manufacturing sites supporting the necessary supply chain for large scale and electric vehicle batteries.”

In its application filed in August, the manufacturer of the Model 3 sedan explained that “if this site is chosen, early construction could begin in the fourth quarter of 2022. The project will reach commercial operations by the fourth quarter of 2024.”

Nothing is certain yet as Tesla said the project was still in a preliminary stage and that it was still reviewing its feasibility.

“No engineering, procurement or construction contracts specific to the proposed location have been negotiated or signed. No regulatory permit applications have been obtained,” the company warned.

Lithium: ‘Like Software Margins’

But it also said that the plant in question can be located anywhere as long as it has access to the Gulf Coast shipping channel. So in addition to Nueces County — on the southeast coast of Texas; the county seat is Corpus Christi — Tesla says it is studying a site in Louisiana.

“In the case of the investment on this proposed project in Texas,” the company says, “the decision will be based on a number of commercial and financial considerations, including the ability to obtain relief regarding local property taxes.”

Bloomberg was first to report about Tesla’s filing.

The big advantage of Texas is that Tesla already has facilities in the state, including its second U.S. vehicle-production plant, inaugurated in Austin last April.

Lithium is an important raw material used to power devices, from mobile phones and tablets to storage devices such as power banks and backup power units. 

It has become a dominant material in the manufacturing of electric vehicles, and as millions of units are expected to be sold each year, demand for the metal may increase significantly.

While countries such as Chile and Australia have the world’s biggest reserves, much of their lithium remains untapped and takes time to process, and the finished material, lithium carbonate, isn’t traded widely.

“The pricing of lithium is insane. I would like to, once again, urge entrepreneurs to enter the lithium refining business,” Musk told analysts during the second-quarter-earnings call.

‘The mining is relatively easy. The refining is much harder. Lithium is actually a very common — sort of very — like lithium pretty much everywhere. But you have to refine the lithium into battery-grade lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide, which has to be extremely high purity,” he added.

“So it is basically like minting money right now. There’s like software margins in lithium processing right now. So I would really like to encourage, once again, entrepreneurs to enter the lithium refining business. You can’t lose.”

The tech tycoon now seems to want to take his own advice, which is likely to give Tesla an extra edge over its rivals.

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