Time to accelerate off 'bottom of battery supply chain'

Australian governments, the mining industry and investors have been urged to stop talking about the battery minerals boom and start building refineries and factories.

"This is a trillion-dollar opportunity for Australia," Tesla chair Robyn Denholm said in Canberra on Tuesday.

"It is our opportunity to lose if we fail to act quickly," she warned decision makers at an annual Minerals Week summit.

"The rest of the world is waking up and looking to compete fiercely with us."

Ms Denholm said mining may be the backbone of the Australian economy but what is less clear is how to seize the opportunity.

Australia can and should be a renewable energy and critical mineral superpower because it is one of the few countries with all of the necessary input materials and minerals, she said.

"However, we are currently stuck at the bottom of the supply chain, leaving much of the value behind," she said.

"Building refineries domestically is the crucial next step."

Western Australia is home to three large lithium refineries but Australia needs 30 more to compete on the world stage, Ms Denholm said.

"And a political and societal will to enable this to happen."

Two years ago, she jump-started the Minerals Council event by saying electric car maker Tesla, a leading manufacturer of electric vehicles and battery storage systems, intended to spend $1.3 billion a year on Australian critical minerals. 

That buying intention has since tripled to more than $4.3 billion a year, she said, as countries race to decarbonise and electrify transport and energy supplies.

Battery demand is surging from just over 375 gigawatt hours in 2023 on a trajectory towards 57 terawatt hours by 2035.

The federal government says it is committed to Australia becoming a battery manufacturer, instead of remaining a major producer of raw battery materials.

But governments and industry needed to align and drive projects together - swiftly, Ms Denholm said.

Most countries targeting battery mineral and manufacturing investment already provided subsidies, leaving Australia to compete in a "sea of subsidised capital" as rival economies lure battery supply chain players, she said.

As the top supply of lithium outside China, she said Australia had more to gain than the rest of the world in the uptake of electric cars and battery storage.

More than 80 per cent of Tesla's lithium feedstock for batteries is sourced from Australia and over half of its contracts for nickel supplies.

But rather than big one-off grants that lack transparency, she advocated ongoing production tax credits for refining battery minerals onshore.

Minerals Council chair Andrew Michelmore warned Australia has become "a more difficult place to do business and a riskier place to invest".

He said investors, here and abroad, were starting to lose their appetite after "opportunistic tax and royalty increases and regular political invention".

"The grim picture must change if Australia is to realise its potential and reap the enormous benefits of this clean energy mining boom," he said.

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