The chair of electric vehicle giant Tesla, Robyn Denholm, says the batteries in her company’s popular cars represent the biggest economic opportunity for the nation in 100 years, calling for public-private partnerships to bring the processing of Australian critical minerals onshore.
Her call has been supported by the new federal government, which plans to pump billions into clean energy component manufacturing and develop national strategies for battery production and electric vehicles.
Speaking at a Canberra electronic vehicle (EV) summit on Friday, Ms Denholm said the batteries powering zero emission cars and trucks represent “the biggest and best economic opportunity for Australia in a century”.
The reason is simple, Ms Denholm said: Australia possesses all the materials needed to build an EV battery and the pedigree to extract them at a world-leading rate.
“There aren’t many other countries in the world that actually do [have the materials],” she told the summit.
“And we have a core competency in the first area, which is mining. Whether it’s lithium or copper or manganese or any of the different elements that go into battery, we know how to do that.”
Australia is already doing the mining part – Ms Denholm’s Tesla bought 70 per cent of its $1 billion worth of minerals from Australia – but there’s a massive opportunity to add more value to the process and gain a much bigger share of global giants’ spend.
“What happens is we dug the rocks out of the ground… and we sent them offshore to be refined, so no value-add. [Of] that billion dollars, [only] a fraction of that comes back to Australia.”
Ms Denholm said Australia must quickly move up the “food chain” of electric vehicles and batteries to take advantage of decarbonising economies around the world.
“That supply chain will start to be locked in for the next decade and for the decades after that pretty soon.
Ms Denholm welcomed the new federal government and its policy to pump up to $3 billion into clean energy opportunities, including component manufacturing and to establish a national battery strategy and manufacturing precinct in Queensland.
But industry needs to play a significant role too, the Tesla chair said.
“It needs to be public-private partnerships because we have the know-how [and] we have the technology. We just need the will to move forwards… It is a very real opportunity for Australia to actually participate in that and become an energy superpower.
Atlassian cofounder Mike Cannon Brookes, whose philanthropic organisation Boundless convened the EV summit, agreed the renewable energy shift is the “largest economic opportunity we’ve faced as a country”.
“It’s about exporting our cheap energy. We should have the cheapest energy in the world and we’re going to export it,” he said.
“We can talk about how we’re going to do that via a wire, we can talk about how we’re going to do that as hydrogen or some sort of material, but the category we leave out the most is basically higher valued exported goods.
“That [opportunity] comes from a very cheap cost of materials, that come from a cheap cost of energy, and that comes from using our national time, talent and treasure to go at that problem.”
Climate change minister Chris Bowen opened the EV Summit by launching consultations on a National Electric Vehicle Strategy which will include fuel efficiency standards. He also lamented the lost opportunity of processing raw materials offshore.
“Right now, we dig up all the minerals needed to make batteries – but we send most of it offshore for the work to be done elsewhere,” Mr Bowen told the summit.
“It’s a lost opportunity for jobs and investment when there are an estimated 35,000 jobs and $7 billion in value to be made in Australia from battery technology and industries across all sectors.”
A discussion paper for the national EV strategy will be released next month.
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