XINING, China/TOKYO -- Chinese carmaker BYD is spending about $3 billion to nearly quadruple its capacity to produce electric car batteries by 2020, in an effort to catch up with leader Contemporary Amperex Technology, or CATL.
"New-energy vehicles are an important strategic industry for China, and batteries form their heart," BYD Chairman Wang Chuanfu said on Wednesday at the opening of the company's new 10 billion yuan ($1.51 billion) battery factory in Xining, part of the western province of Qinghai.
Wang described the plant, located more than 2,000km from BYD's Shenzhen headquarters, as having "world-leading efficiency."
Chinas' biggest maker of electric cars by sales has made Qinghai, home to an estimated 80% of China's lithium reserves, a hub of its battery business.
BYD has formed a lithium processing venture with a local company to cut transportation costs and shield its supply chain from fluctuations in prices of this increasingly vital industrial resource. Robots will play a large part in reducing production costs.
The new plant has an annual capacity of 24 gigawatt-hours of batteries -- enough to power 1.2 million BYD plug-in hybrids. That is more than 10 times the company's 2017 new-energy vehicle sales, but the plant is meant to make BYD a major supplier of batteries to other automakers.
BYD has also agreed with the local government of Xining to construct another 9 billion yuan battery factory with a targeted annual capacity of about 20 gigawatt-hours.
The company's two existing plants in Guangdong Province have a combined capacity of 16 gigawatt-hours, and the two new facilities will lift the total to 60 gigawatt-hours by 2020.
Founded in 1995, BYD started out as a battery maker and grew by supplying them for mobile phones, giving Wang a reputation as China's "battery king." The company, which counts U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway among its investors, later expanded into automotive batteries and new-energy vehicles, a Chinese term for electric cars and plug-in hybrids.
But in recent years, BYD has been slow to adopt new technologies as it has focused on supplying batteries for its own cars. In the meantime, CATL took over as the battery market leader.
Last year, BYD announced plans to supply auto batteries to other car companies, and began exploring a possible spinoff of the battery business, which would give it greater independence.
Meanwhile, international prices of lithium carbonate have more than doubled over the past three years, and may keep climbing long term amid growing demand for such applications as smartphones.
Battery specialist CATL collaborates with many big automakers seeking growth in the Chinese market. The company plans to invest proceeds from its recent stock market debut and other sources to raise its annual production capacity to 50 gigawatt-hours by 2020.
The Chinese market for new-energy vehicle rose to 770,000 units in 2017, making it the biggest in the world, but the government aims to reach 2 million in 2020. New rules taking effect next year will set quotas for automakers' Chinese production and sales of these vehicles.
Japan's Panasonic, which has a battery partnership with U.S. electric-vehicle maker Tesla, is adding capacity in China as it seeks to more than quintuple revenue in its automotive segment by 2022. South Korean companies are also sharpening their focus on China.
But home-grown battery makers are expected to take on a bigger presence in China, with smaller players like OptimumNano Energy revving up investment.
Much depends on the supply of lithium. Chilean resources company SQM will roughly quadruple the capacity of its lithium carbonate refining facilities by 2021, and Chinese lithium supplier Tianqi Group will raise its stake in the company to more than 25% from 2%. Chinese automaker Great Wall Motor has invested in an Australian lithium resource company.
"Competition for low-cost, high-quality [lithium] from Latin America is intense," said Yoshikazu Watanabe, president of Tsukushi Shigen Consul, a Japanese resource consultancy.