Batteries could power your profits as cars go green

Earlier this week, Elon Musk, the Tesla boss, asked his 52.5m Twitter followers what the future would hold. 

For the tycoon, it might augur a £9bn bonus, thanks to the surging sales of Tesla models which, like other electric cars, are increasingly popular. 

The battery technology that powers these vehicles is seen as a way to slash carbon emissions – the planet-friendly goal now being pursued by the US, Britain and other governments. 

The UK plans to phase out sales of all non-electric cars by 2035. But does this technology, despite its planet-friendly credentials, also have downsides for those who aspire to invest more ethically? 

By next year, there may be as many as 500 different types of electric vehicles available worldwide, according to the BloombergNEF data.

Aanand Venkatramanan, investment director at Legal & General Investment Management, says that there are already at least 100 electric vehicle manufacturers in China, highlighting the speed of the transportation revolution. 

This is picking up pace as the cost of batteries falls and storage density improves, with car makers striving for the target of an 80 per cent charge in 15 minutes – an acceptable wait time, apparently. 

Such is the excitement surrounding advances in the battery technology which will drive this revolution, that the share price of QuantumScape rose by 22 per cent this week. 

This secretive US company is working on the next generation solid-state batteries that should offer speedier charging times. These batteries, which are seen as more environmentally friendly, should dispel the ‘range anxiety’ (worry over how far a car can travel on one charge) that can deter buyers. QuantumScape’s shareholders include Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Volkswagen, which aims to build 25m electrical vehicles by 2030. 

As a result of the demand that will be created by these ambitions and the plans of other car makers, the large battery market could be worth $109billion by 2024, against $64billion in 2019. This forecast does not take into account sales to the fast-expanding renewables energy storage sector, which also relies on this source of power to release energy when customers need it. 

If you believe that battery technology could give a spark to your portfolio, you could consider the companies tipped to be the major beneficiaries from the move to electric vehicles. They include Panasonic, Samsung, the German group Varta – and, of course Tesla, although its share price is up 351 per cent over a year. You may be exposed to the stock through funds and trusts like Baillie Gifford American and Scottish Mortgage. 

Also on the list are the Korean LG Chem and the Chinese Catl (Contemporary Amperex Technology). These two battery makers are opening gigafactories in Europe. 

If you want to put money into UK companies exploiting the transition from petrol to battery, your options are limited. At present, just one gigafactory seems set to be built in Britain. 

The start-up Britishvolt is seeking to establish a plant in Blyth, Northumberland. The company may soon go public, but in New York, through a Spac (special purpose acquisition company).

The 495 per cent increase over 12 months in the share price of Aim-listed Ilika illustrates investors’ eagerness to back British. 

This pioneer has received a grant from the Government’s Faraday Battery Challenge to develop solid-state batteries via partnerships with Honda, Jaguar Land Rover and McLaren Automotive, hinting that further share price appreciation may be possible. 

The complexity of what insiders call ‘battery chemistries suggests that for some, a specialist fund may be the best route into this risky area. Legal & General’s Battery Value Chain ETF (exchange traded fund) is based on an index of stocks built by Venkatramanan. Its constituents include the Australian lithium miners Galaxy and Pilbara, Japan’s Toshiba, plus motor giants BMW, Daimler, Renault and Tesla. 

This month BMW promised that its solid-state technology would, by the end of this decade, produce the ‘greenest car in the world’. 

It will be attractive to investors who are prioritising sustainability. But putting money into this sector now represents a bet that such pledges can be kept.

And while battery technology may be key to reducing carbon emissions, it has a darker side. 

Tesla and most other brands are endeavouring to improve their standards, but they still rely on lithium-ion batteries which contain cobalt, lithium and nickel. 

The companies that mine these metals have a record on the environment, and workers’ rights that is often poor, and controversy surrounds the involvement of child labour in the supply of cobalt from Congo. This metal’s price has soared this year from $30,000 a tonne to $49,500, driven by the shift to electric cars. They are promising to improve. But many potential buyers may be deterred by this, so investors should perhaps agitate for faster change. 

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