Tesla was founded in 2003 by South African-born entrepreneur, inventor, and engineer Elon Musk. Tesla’s first product that really grabbed people’s attention was the Roadster in 2008, which was the first mass-produced electric sports car. This was followed by the very popular Model S in 2012, as well as the Model X in 2015. Recently, Tesla just started production of the Model 3, a mass-market electric sedan that starts at $35,000 before any government incentives. Other up-and-coming Tesla products include the Powerwall and Powerpack, which are essentially battery packs for homes and businesses respectively, designed to charge and store energy from solar panels during the day and to use that energy at night. With the popularity of these products growing rapidly, a solution was needed in order to be able to keep up with the demand of the lithium-ion batteries required for Tesla’s products.
In November of 2013, Elon Musk first made public mention of a gigafactory. This factory would be an enormous facility that would produce every lithium-ion battery pack that was needed for all of Tesla’s products. What really set this gigafactory apart from other ordinary factories was the amount of lithium-ion batteries that this one gigafactory would produce. In order to meet their planned production rate of 500,000 cars per year, not including the Powerwalls and Powerpacks, Tesla would have to make more lithium-ion battery cells than every other lithium-ion battery manufacturer in the world combined. The gigafactory achieves this.
In addition to achieving this enormous production rate of lithium-ion battery cells, the gigafactory has numerous other accolades. The gigafactory, once fully completed in 2020, is expected to easily be the largest building in the world by footprint. Also, despite a factory of this size, the gigafactory has many green aspects about it. The roof is painted white in order to better reflect light, keep things cool, and ensure that the roof-mounted solar panels work as efficiently as possible. But the single most impressive green accolade about the gigafactory is that the entire building will run off of 100% renewable energy. The majority of the energy will be generated by the roof-mounted solar panels that were previously mentioned, with the remaining energy being supplied by wind and geo-thermal power.
With the gigafactory being as green as it is despite its enormous size, one must wonder what downside is there to this building. One potential issue that hasn’t directly been addressed is lithium supply. Elon Musk, has mentioned that he plans on having at least four more gigafactories in the U.S. alone, with the potential of having over 100 gigafactories worldwide. Other companies have already shown interest in building gigafactories of their own.
With the one gigafactory requiring more lithium than every other lithium-ion battery manufacturer in the world combined, as well as the thought of there potentially being over 100 of these factories worldwide, how could this affect the world’s lithium supply? Could this lead to a shortage, consequently increasing the price of lithium? Could a shortage lead to unsafe lithium mining practices in order to meet demand? Other than a lithium shortage, are there any other potential issues that could arise? The rise of gigafactories creates a significant change of magnitude that certainly deserves more attention and discussion than it is currently receiving.