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Nickel shortage spells trouble for EVs — report

The auto industry’s move to electric cars could encounter hiccups caused by a shortage of nickel — one of the most widely used minerals for EV batteries — as soon as 2026, according to research from consultancy Rystad Energy.

Discussions about electric vehicles’ appetite for raw materials have tended to overlook nickel, focusing more on the supply challenges and societal impacts of cobalt and lithium.

Yet according to Rystad’s timelines, nickel could be one of the first battery minerals to experience shortages. By 2024, global demand for nickel will have risen from 2.5 million tons to 3.4 million tons, surpassing supplies, the group said.

For battery makers and car manufacturers, the crunch will be felt within the following two years, with “no obvious solution in sight,” wrote analysts at the Norway-based consultancy.

That would add another layer of complexity to the balancing act facing electric vehicles, at a time when auto manufacturers are under pressure from policymakers in the United States to electrify their fleets. The Biden administration has a goal of converting 50 percent of all new car sales to electric models by 2030, and states like California and New York are also preparing regulations that will phase out gas-car sales by 2035.

Nickel chemistries tend to allow for better range, noted James Ley, a senior vice president at Rystad, in an email to E&E News. Many prospective EV buyers cite a vehicle’s range — or the mileage granted by a single battery charge — as a key consideration.

If shortages were to drive the price of nickel to “historic highs,” while simultaneously doing the same for the cost of other raw materials like lithium, Ley added, the sticker price of a new electric car could conceivably rise by a few thousand dollars, making them harder to sell.

Still, looming nickel shortages don’t make for an insurmountable obstacle, when considering President Biden’s goals, Ley said.

Automakers “can mitigate tightness in nickel,” he wrote, including by switching to new battery chemistries that don’t contain nickel, as Tesla and Volkswagen have already pledged to do.

Rystad’s note yesterday coincided with two new market surveys showing that EVs’ share of car sales is ticking upward, although a boom hasn’t quite materialized.

In its first-ever quarterly report on electric vehicle sales, the auto industry’s main trade group found that between April and June, EVs made up 3.8 percent of the total market in the United States.

That was the highest quarterly percentage ever, up from 2.2 percent during the same quarter last year, according to the group, known as the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

The alliance’s president, John Bozzella, said the report “showcases the momentum we are seeing in consumer acceptance of zero emission vehicles across the country.” Yet the group also called on policymakers to commit new funds for EV chargers and incentives for EV buyers, while helping to grow domestic supplies of key materials.

A second report, produced by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), found that in 2020, EVs constituted 4.6 percent of all new cars sold globally — also a record percentage.

The number of public EV chargers grew by nearly 50 percent, the group said. And the average cost of battery packs fell 12 percent, a favorable sign for the price of new EVs. ICCT also took stock of how policymakers in some parts of the world have embraced EVs as a solution for addressing climate. By the end of 2020, over 20 countries, provinces and states across Europe and North America had pledged to end gas car sales, the group wrote.

But analysts at Rystad think nickel’s scarcity might compromise EVs’ public image. As miners seek out new sources of nickel, they wrote, controversies over the social and environmental impacts of nickel production could mushroom, and potentially “tarnish” manufacturers of electric cars, wrote analysts at the Norway-based consultancy.

Carmakers might increasingly look to “previously unattractive sources,” including deposits located in Indonesia — the world’s biggest producer of nickel, but a place with a shaky record of protecting local ecosystems from nickel’s waste streams, said Ley.

The global standard-bearer for electric cars, Tesla Inc., has already made early overtures to Indonesian officials about acquiring supplies there. The company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, said earlier this year that nickel was his “biggest concern” in scaling up production of lithium-ion batteries, spurring Tesla to partner with major mining company BHP to lock up supplies.

Some carmakers “might be reluctant to get tied up with Indonesia when looking at new supplies,” wrote Ley in an email to E&E News, but they’ll face competition for supplies from the stainless steel industry, which remains the biggest source of demand for nickel.

“So this is definitely a problem,” he wrote.

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