Why A Gigafactory? Tesla Used 1/3 Of All Electric-Car Batteries Last Year

Tesla Motors - Model S lithium-ion battery pack

Tesla Motors - Model S lithium-ion battery pack

The 210,000 plug-in electric vehicles sold around the world last year used a lot of lithium-ion batteries.

But if startup automaker Tesla Motors has its way, it will soon need as many lithium-ion cells (of the 18650 format it uses) as are now built worldwide.

That's why the company plans to release more details this week on its upcoming "gigafactory," a huge U.S. plant to build the cells it needed to let it boost production from last year's 24,000 electric cars to more than 100,000 by 2018.

MORE: Will Tesla Alone Double Global Demand For Its Battery Cells?

Already electric cars are consuming huge amounts of lithium-ion cells--and if the sector grows as expected, a whole new industrial base for battery production may be required.

2014 Tesla Model S

2014 Tesla Model S

42 cars, 5 gigawatt-hours

Here's the math from last year--Tesla's first full year of production for its Model S electric luxury sport sedan.

Building off the hard work of Jose Pontes at EV-Sales.Blogspot.com, which tracks sales of 42 different electric vehicles around the world, the sector appears to have consumed about 4800 MegaWatt-hours (MWh) of lithium-ion batteries.

Market research has predicted that in 2013 the total global lithium-ion battery market–excluding cars–would be about 40,000 MWh (with a healthy margin of error).

[UPDATE: Tesla’s GigaFactory presentation, summarized here, suggests lithium ion battery production was a bit lower, on the order of 34 GWh--or 34,000 MWh--in 2013.]

Add in the auto sector, and electric vehicles already represent roughly one-tenth of global lithium-ion cell use. And this comes merely three years after the December 2010 debuts of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt.

2014 Nissan Leaf

2014 Nissan Leaf

Tesla vs Nissan

Then came the Tesla Model S, which went into volume production in fall 2012. Though it was outsold more than two-to-one by the Nissan Leaf, its much bigger battery pack meant the California carmaker used far more lithium-ion capacity per car.

Tesla has said that more than 70 percent of Tesla Model S cars sold in 2013 were the version with the larger 85-kWh battery pack. The company expects that percentage to decrease somewhat over time, as Model S buyers evolve from "early adopters" to "early majority" types.

This suggests that the average Model S ships with 77 to 78 kWh of batteries. Multiplying by the 22,477 vehicles the company sold worldwide last year, we find that the company's lithium-ion battery consumption amounted to about 1750 MWh--a bit more than one-third of the industry's battery usage.

The much larger number of Nissan Leafs sold last year consumed about 1100 MWh. Together, those two electric cars represented about 60 percent of the vehicle sector's lithium-ion use last year.

Estimated 2013 lithium-ion battery consumption for plug-in electric cars

Estimated 2013 lithium-ion battery consumption for plug-in electric cars

Tesla vs Apple

Tesla's battery consumption in 2013 was probably about half that of Apple, its Californian corporate colleague.

Apple is reported to have sold 71 million iPads and 150 million iPhones in its fiscal 2013. Without knowing the exact product mix, we might estimate the average iPad battery to be 30 Watt-hours and the average iPhone battery to be 5.4 Watt-hours. [See note at end of story for more details.]

Apple's battery consumption in its fiscal 2013–which doesn't actually match calendar 2013–would thus be about 3000 MWh: 2100 MWh from tablets, 800 MWh from phones. (We rounded up to reflect the batteries in Apple's laptops.)

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