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CATL to keep expanding in the face of slower EV growth: founder Robin Zeng

Bloomberg • 5 min read
CATL to keep expanding in the face of slower EV growth: founder Robin Zeng
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The founder of China’s world-beating battery manufacturer is pressing ahead with expansion in the face of a global slowdown in electric-vehicle sales growth.

Contemporary Amperex Technology Co isn’t worried about overcapacity, and in fact will crank up output of its more technologically advanced products, said Robin Zeng, president and chairman of the company better known as CATL. In his first interview with an international news outlet since 2020, he said his company has found the solutions to get battery-charge times down to 10 minutes, and is working on reducing them even further.

“It’s a necessary process,” Zeng said of the dynamics playing out in China’s electric-vehicle industry. “The Chinese EV market, unlike policy-driven overseas markets that are still stuck at low penetration rates, is now market-driven.”

Zeng offered his survival of the tech-savviest assessment Monday from Hong Kong, where he delivered one of the keynotes at a sustainability conference. His view that market forces are taking hold in China is reinforced by the central government doing away with national subsidies at the end of 2022. Around that time, Tesla Inc fired the opening salvo in a price war that’s squeezed profit margins for many manufacturers and put others further into the red.

“Some companies may fall behind, and naturally there will be consolidation,” Zeng said.

CATL supplies batteries to almost every major automaker, including Tesla, Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp. The company based in Ningde, Fujian Province, generated 400.9 billion yuan ($74.7 billion) in revenue last year, roughly eight times its 2020 total.

See also: China’s EV makers taking longer to pay bills amid rising stress

While consolidation among EV manufacturers could lead to a shrinking of battery makers’ customer bases, CATL’s technology development gives Zeng confidence.

“There’s not enough production capacity for good products,” he said. “We need more expansion for more advanced technologies and to cater to consumers’ needs, such as faster charging and better battery performance under low temperatures.”

To that end, CATL is working on solutions including more advanced sodium-ion batteries, which have the potential to cost less than lithium-ion cells. While sodium batteries perform “way better” in colder climates, Zeng said, he cautioned that it’s difficult to say how quickly they will catch on.

See also: Hyundai brings back car assembly with highly-automated EV plant

CATL Remains Top EV Battery Maker in China, Globally | Battery king remains dominant at home while growing share overseas

CATL has come to dominate the world’s battery market with its cheap but durable cells that use lithium iron phosphate, or LFP, as the cathode material. Lithium-ion chemistries offer superior energy density, enabling drivers to travel further between charges.

Zeng has said CATL will compensate for the inferior energy density of sodium-ion by mixing and matching these cells with lithium-ion ones. CATL also has developed a 1,000-kilometer-range battery, and is working on condensed-state cells that it’s said could be powerful enough for planes.

For all its technological prowess, CATL hasn’t been immune from the EV slowdown. Its market capitalization has roughly halved from a peak of 1.6 trillion yuan in December 2021. China’s retail sales of new-energy vehicles — which includes hybrids along with fully electric vehicles — almost doubled that year. The rate of expansion is expected to slow from 36% last year 25% this year, according to China’s Passenger Car Association.

While all battery makers are racing to develop technology that gives their cells an edge, CATL’s current dominance looks unassailable. It commands half of the market in China, and is challenging South Korea’s LG Energy Solution Ltd. for the top spot in the rest of the world.

Growing in overseas markets offers a hedge of sorts for CATL, as there’s potential for the company to generate better returns away from home. The battery giant’s sales and profit have continued to increase, albeit at slower rates. Net income rose 44% last year to 44.12 billion yuan, beating estimates.

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CATL has been benefiting lately from lower prices of key inputs. The spot price of lithium carbonate in China — a crucial raw material for EV batteries — has dropped around 84% from a peak in November 2022. Nickel has also been on a wild ride, with oversupply precipitating a more than 60% decline in prices from their 2022 peak.

Zeng, 56, founded CATL in 2011, a time when policymakers in China were making electric vehicles a national development priority. The company went public in 2018, and its success has made Zeng, who has a doctorate in condensed matter physics, a billionaire many times over. His net worth is around US$27.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

While Shenzhen-listed CATL is well-capitalized, Zeng said it’s considering a secondary listing in Hong Kong to enable some of its partners to invest in the company.

Perhaps the darkest cloud on the horizon for CATL is geopolitics.

The US is pushing back on companies led by CATL and China’s top EV maker BYD Co. over their grip on the electric vehicle supply chain. The Inflation Reduction Act — President Joe Biden’s signature climate law — contained some US$370 billion in provisions to support new domestic solar, battery and EV factories.

The European Union also has launched an investigation into China subsidizing its EV industry that looks poised to lead to additional tariffs being levied later this year.

Zeng said CATL has relationships with trusted partners that will transcend political disturbances. He downplayed the threat posed by the IRA, saying it only offers temporary protection to the US auto industry, and likened the US election this year to an entertaining film.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have much time for amusement shows,” Zeng said. “I need to focus on technology.”

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