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Business trends

China's CATL to scale up EV battery production in Germany

Company expects electric vehicle demand to rise on tougher emissions rules

A CATL plant in China: The EV battery maker plans to ramp up production capacity in Germany ahead of tighter rules on vehicle emissions. (Photo courtesy CATL)

HAMBURG -- Chinese battery maker Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. plans to ramp up output in Germany where a lack of local producers has left automakers dependent on Asian suppliers for batteries.

CATL is building a 240 million euro ($270 million) lithium-ion battery factory near Erfurt, eastern Germany, slated to begin production in 2021 with an initial capacity of 14 gigawatt hours per year. The company recently indicated that capacity will be expanded to 60 GWh by 2026, and that demand in Germany could reach 100 GWh even sooner.

With auto sales slowing in China, the world's largest market for electric vehicles, the country's automakers and parts suppliers are increasingly looking overseas for growth opportunities. At the same time, Germany has shown a willingness to embrace Chinese technology, with the government pushing back against U.S. pressure to shut out companies like smartphone and 5G equipment maker Huawei.

South Korean battery makers are also eyeing production in Europe to serve customers including Volkswagen, as German automakers remain reliant on Asian suppliers for batteries.

The Erfurt plant is backed by an initial battery order from BMW worth 4 billion euros -- including 1.5 billion euros' worth to be produced in Erfurt.

Matthias Zentgraf, CATL's regional president for Europe, unveiled the planned capacity expansion at the German government-initiated Battery Forum Germany in Berlin in late January. In a subsequent interview with European electromobility news service www.electrive.com, Zentgraf projected that CATL in Germany will see demand of at least 100 GWh in 2025. For comparison, Tesla's Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada was projected to reach capacity of 35 GWh in 2018.

"The inquiries of the automobile manufacturers are here. Our initial planning is currently being revised, and perhaps the halls will now be larger," Zentgraf said.

Zentgraf indicated that the planned expansion of CATL's Erfurt project was tied by to an agreement on vehicle emissions reached by the European Parliament and the EU member states on Dec. 17. Under the agreement, CO2 emissions from new cars and vans must be 37.5% and 31% lower, respectively, by 2030 calculated based on 2021 emission levels.

Though the decision has yet to be ratified by European Parliament and the EU member states, Volkswagen already responded by tripling its 2030 sales target for electric cars to 1.8 million, according to German news reports.

Among the customers CATL plans to supply from Erfurt are BMW, Daimler and Paris-headquartered PSA. Although CATL cooperates with Volkswagen in China, Volkswagen procures its batteries for Europe from LG Chem, Samsung and SK Innovation.

No German automaker or component supplier produces battery cells for electric vehicles, and none has concrete plans for doing so given the massive investment that creating homegrown production would entail. However, SK Innovation and Volkswagen are reportedly considering to cooperate in building and operating multiple battery plants in Europe.

At the same time, the German government is starting to take steps to address domestic automakers' complete reliance on Asian suppliers for batteries.

A consortium including Deutsche Post-subsidiary StreetScooter and local battery maker BMZ is currently in talks with the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia in western Germany to establishing the country's first domestically owned battery factory. 

Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier said late last year that 1 billion euros in state subsidies for battery factories will be made available to investors.

But these efforts are not expected to pose any direct challenge to CATL's Erfurt operations in the medium term. The BMZ-led factory will be much smaller, with just 1 GWh of output envisioned for the first phase, and will be targeted at different segments.

"They will first focus on BMZ's existing customers, which are mostly manufacturers of power tools, such as electric drills and vacuum cleaners," Kai-Christian Moeller, a battery expert responsible for cross-institutional battery projects at the Fraunhofer research institute in Munich, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"Even if they scale up production, it would affect the likes of Samsung or Panasonic more than CATL," he added.

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