Via AG Metal Miner
Battery original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have enjoyed a clear trend for much of the last decade. In fact, they’ve largely achieved falling per kWh manufacturing costs thanks to two strong dynamics. The first is economies of scale. After all, demand for both consumer electronics and electric vehicles in all forms – hybrid and full EV – continues to rise. The second dynamic is the technological advancements reducing the use of high-cost component metals like battery nickel and cobalt. That said, these past ten years continue to demonstrate a reversal of fortunes as competing dynamics assert their own market dominance.
Most OEMs Can’t Avoid Pricey Battery Nickel
For instance, despite early promises, battery OEM’s have not been able to escape the need for high-cost constituents like nickel altogether. These metals proffer range and fast charging but have limited use in point-to point-transportation like buses. In markets such as Chinese cities, range and charging speed continue to create strong selling barriers and limit EV rollout. This forces battery OEM’s to remain reliant on more expensive resources despite their inherent price volatility and limited supply options.
The second dynamic follows a similar path. EV uptake this decade has been impressive, particularly in the western US states, Europe, and China. However, many automakers find themselves becoming victims of their own success. In many cases, they continue to scramble to build supply chains to keep up with demand.
Traditionally, battery makers enjoyed long-term off-take agreements with miners and refiners. This fixed raw material costs and ensured demand to support the financing of new resource projects. Banks and other financial institutions were willing to lend to a project with a ten-year off-take agreement, as the business plan was comparatively more robust.
However, the industry’s success has attracted myriad more financial options. In a raw material-constrained market, miners and refiners have found spot prices significantly exceeding long-term off-take prices, sometimes by as much as double. As a result, suppliers of carbonate, hydroxide, and sulfate metal salts continue to move on to spot pricing. This, in turn, forces battery makers to increase their exposure to higher-priced and more volatile input costs.
The Spot Pricing Trend
An excellent illustration of this is the evolution of the spot or physical delivery premium for nickel salts over LME nickel metal prices. In fact, this trend would have remained superfluous under the long-term fixed-price market. Now, in a fluctuating spot market, it becomes a valuable pricing point, with many companies reporting a weekly premium.
Yet another trend is the overall movement away from using refined metal in the supply chain and instead developing alternative intermediaries. For example, nickel briquettes once made up some 80+% of nickel sulfate producers. This is a key battery substrate for fast-charging, long-distance EV batteries. At the turn of the decade, these were rapidly replaced by mixed hydroxide precipitate (MHP), nickel matte, and mixed sulfide precipitate (MSP). All of these contain nickel in much lower percentages. However, they work out to be much cheaper on a per-nick unit basis.
Of course, such a trend further distances battery input cost from the LME Nickel or, likewise, the LME Cobalt price. To make matters worse, it makes price discovery increasingly challenging for most of the industry’s major players.
By Stuart Burns
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