Business Maverick

MINING INDABA

As EV sales stall, obituaries of the internal combustion engine look premature

As EV sales stall, obituaries of the internal combustion engine look premature
An electric car charges at a public charging station on 11 September 2023 in Eisenberg, Germany. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Farewells to the internal combustion engine are starting to look premature. That provides a ray of hope for producers of platinum group metals.

Electric vehicle (EVs) sales in Germany, Europe’s biggest car market, have grown every year since 2016. Such demand has fuelled a scramble for the critical minerals such as cobalt and lithium required for the batteries that power EVs.

This, in turn — as well as a sour global economy and too much supply – has undermined the prices of platinum group metals (PGMs), which just a few years ago were fetching record prices. The main industrial use of PGMs is for the emissions-capping catalytic converters in diesel and petrol internal combustion engines (ICEs). Last year, the PGM basket price was around 30% lower.

Times are changing. Bloomberg reports that lithium has also plunged, by more than 80% from its record price in late 2022, as the market whipsawed from previous shortfalls, while nickel and cobalt have also crashed due to an inrush of production. Cobalt has plunged by two-thirds since 2022, while nickel lost almost half its value in 2023.

With EV sales now stalling, the rush to consign the ICE to the dustbin of history looks premature.

EV ‘hype’

“The hype around battery electric vehicles is hype. And, of course, we have exposure to it. So, there will be battery EVs but there will be a lot less than expected. So penetration rates will be lower. And why? Well, when people buy EVs they find that they are not exactly what they thought they were,” Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman told Daily Maverick in an interview.

“The future of ICEs is for a long time,” he said.

The German market is a case in point. For the first time since 2016, forecasts are for EV sales to fall in Germany in 2024 by as much as 14%

Squeezed by high interest rates and other cost-of-living pressures, sales of EVs appear to have stalled as consumers wait for cheaper models with better range.

Sibanye is a PGM producer, so a critic might say Froneman is trying to talk up his book. But the company is also making a big drive into the battery minerals space. 

Supply

Another pothole in the EV road is the supply of such minerals, which is a focus of the Investment in African Mining Indaba this week. 

“There are not enough critical minerals to supply into EV forecasts,” Froneman said.

BloombergNEF’s 2023 Electric Vehicle Outlook – an analysis of EV adoption in passenger vehicles, commercial vans, trucks, buses and other vehicles globally – estimated in July 2023 that there will be 730 million passenger EVs on the road by 2040. 

This, it said, presented a $1.9-trillion opportunity for the charging infrastructure market between today and 2050, with the cumulative value of EV sales across all segments hitting $8.8-trillion by 2030 and $57-trillion by 2050.

What a difference seven months makes: while that report said ICE vehicle sales had peaked already in 2017 and were now in long-term decline, it suggested that by 2026, sales of combustion vehicles would be 39% lower than their peak in 2017. 

That’s predicated on the rapid and large demand for lithium batteries. 

Increasingly, governments and car manufacturers need to localise their supply chains through policies ranging from direct subsidies to “battery passports” to meet ESG requirements, thereby bringing transparency to the global battery value chain on the material provenance, chemical make-up, manufacturing history and sustainability performance.

Green minerals strategy

Jerry Ahadjie, the chief minerals officer at the African Development  Bank (AfDB) believes that resource-rich Africa needs a green minerals strategy to benefit from demand for batteries. 

He told a panel on the role of batteries in the green transition and implications for mining in Africa that the AfDB and African Union were working on a green minerals strategy to provide policy orientation for countries where these minerals are located. He said exploration is expensive, so African governments must also invest in it to ensure growth. 

“We need to attract investors, not scare them through policy. We need to embrace the green transition.”

Skills and technology are a second focus: skills development will be critical: “We need more centres of excellence such as advanced battery research centres to add value to the people. For example, it’s about 7,000km to ship cobalt from the DRC to China. That’s not good for the environment. It would be better if value is added where it is produced.”

Citing work they had done with BloombergNEF, he said it was three times cheaper to produce batteries in the DRC than in the US or Poland. 

“These countries don’t have all the components — nickel comes from Madagascar, graphite from Tanzania. This would be a regional or sub-regional project.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    EV’s are a fad and only obtainable by the moderately wealthy. Until a cheap, reliable alternative power source is found, O&G is here to stay

    • John P says:

      Indeed yes, EVs are a politically driven pie in the sky. To date I have not seen any planning or discussion in any country around increasing the electrical supply to allow for tens of thousands of EVs plugging in to charge when getting home from work.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Why not just make much smaller combustion engine cars as a first to cutting emissions? Compare European car sizes in the 60s to the huge vehicles pouring out pollution and taking up space now. Destroying the planet to mind lithium isn’t very “green”. Better public transport, high taxes and very expensive parking are better options for the developed world.

  • Raymond Auerbach says:

    I agree that the first step is to small and efficient internal combustion engines. We replaced both vehicles recently, and, although we have always had small, fuel efficient diesel vehicles, the advances in petrol engines really impressed us. Our town runabout is a 1 litre Nissan Magnite, extremely fuel efficient, and our long-distance vehicle is a Volvo XC 40 T3. The salesman tried very hard to get us to go for XC 60 or XC 90, and when we wouldn’t, he said how the XC 40 was under-powered with the T3 and we should go for the bigger T4 or T5 engines! We stuck with XC 40 T3, and it has PLENTY of power and is very fuel efficient. At present, as we drive from George to Cape Town regularly, an EV is not yet an option. We wait hopefully!

    • Ben Harper says:

      Efficient charging that doesn’t take hours is years away, if it is ever even achievable. Anything outside a 50 – 80 km radius of your home is futile unless you have a few hours to spare and a charging station available

  • Andrew Coleman says:

    The article is factually incorrect. Global market share of pure battery electric vehicles increase every quarter. The world’s best selling car is the Tesla Model Y.
    The legacy car manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry seem to influence your journalism more than facts.
    We could power all of our transport with locally produced electricity rather than wasting our hard earned foreign currency on importing fossil fuel, strengthening the Rand significantly.
    BEVs are about 90% efficient and ICE cars about 15% efficient so even electricity from coal fired power stations are preferable and less polluting than powering vehicles with fossil fuel. Obviously renewable domestically produced electricity is the best option.
    My BEV is the safest car in the world and words can’t describe just how much fun it is to own and drive.
    Please open your minds to the future, it’s here for the taking already.

    • Ben Harper says:

      But lets take that back further look at the true carbon footprint from mine to road – different picture then

    • John P says:

      Yes Tesla sold 1.23 million Model Y but that is just a percentage of the total vehicle market. Toyota sold over a million RAV4s and over a million Corollas. What about all the other brands? The top 25 vehicles sold in the USA only included 5 non ICE models.

    • Rob M says:

      True re BEVs efficiency, but don’t forget to consider:

      what is the efficiency of a coal power plant? ~33%.
      What about transmission line loses? 10-20%.
      0.9*0.33*0.8 = 24-27%

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