Elon Musk’s vision for Tesla underscores its identity as an energy company

Posted on : 2020-09-17 17:10 KST Modified on : 2020-09-17 17:10 KST
Electric car brand looking to set up independent production of battery cells in Berlin
Graphic by Kim Jeong-suk
Graphic by Kim Jeong-suk

The global automobile industry and other energy-related industries such as rechargeable battery developers are watching closely for Tesla’s “Battery Day” event scheduled for Sept. 22. Tesla has currently been shaking things up as it broadens its activities in the energy market. Visiting a Gigafactory construction site in Berlin on Sept. 3, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said, “The three elements needed for a sustainable energy future are sustainable energy generation, energy storage, and sustainable transport, electric cars.” His message underscored Tesla’s identity as an “energy company.”

“Their real business is energy; battery internalization is inevitable”

Musk has recently expressed particular interest in energy generation and storage -- even raising the possibility of supplying batteries and powertrains to other businesses. His calculation is that mass production will become key as environmental regulations intensify and the ability to offer stable supplies and distribution of sustainable energy at low cost grows more and more important. He has also concluded that this offers a way of widening the gap between his company and others in the automobile industry.

Musk’s recent activities have been significant. On Sept. 3, he immediately followed up his Gigafactory construction site visit with a surprise meeting with Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess. The Berlin Gigafactory is expected to serve as a base for Tesla’s independent production of battery cells. Industry observers predict some potential for transactions between the two companies in the long term.

“You have to conclude that Tesla’s real business model is energy,” said Koh Tae-bong, head of research at HI Investment & Securities.

“Since the key element here is batteries, they’re focusing their energies on developing and internalizing battery technology,” he added.

Dry coating and silicon anode materials; “feasibility will be key”

The key technologies that observers are expecting Tesla to present for this year’s Battery Day are nanowires and dry electrodes. Industry observers are predicting that if Tesla establishes itself as a leader in those two areas, other companies will have their work cut out for them catching up for the time being. Dry electrodes offer a simpler manufacturing process than wet coating while maintaining the initial charging and discharging efficiency. In effect, they would allow for cost-cutting and improved performance simultaneously. Last year, Tesla acquired the company Maxwell, which uses the technology to produce supercapacitors -- devices that improve energy storage capacity, offering all the advantages of both batteries and accumulators.

Nanowire technology, which Tesla recently featured as a background image for its Battery Day website, is related to silicon anode active materials. Silicon is capable of storing lithium ions at a rate over 10 times higher than graphite, but has rarely been used due to its tendency to expand. Nanowire technology is seen as offering a solution to this silicon expansion issue. LG Chem has recently been adding small amounts of silicon to some of its batteries, but no battery company has yet applied nanowire technology.

Another focus of attention concerns developments with lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries that are currently being supplied to Tesla by the Chinese company CATL. LFP batteries have low energy density, but are cheap and durable. Industry analysts have suggested they could become an integral part of the entry-level automobile market.

“In terms of whether there’s any truly ‘game-changing’ announcements right away, we’re going to need to wait and see,” said Won Min-seok, a senior analyst at HI Investment & Securities.

At the same time, Won predicted, “Once we do see a concrete situation of new technology development, LG Chem and other companies will have no choice but to follow Tesla’s course.”

By Lee Jae-yeon, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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