Giga Down Under

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Not so long ago, Brian Craighead, Founder and Development Director at Energy Renaissance, was working on an oil drilling rig. Now, he is doing his penance building Australia’s first lithium-ion battery gigafactory. Mind you, it is next to a service station. We had our phone interview about Energy Renaissance while he was sitting in his Tesla Model 3 SR+ at the Supercharger.

Giga Down Under, Australia's first battery gigafactory, Tesla Supercharging
Brian discusses the Giga Down Under, Australia’s first battery gigafactory, while his Tesla Charges.

Gigafactory Origin, Location, & Planning

Energy Renaissance is building an automated giga-scale lithium-ion battery manufacturing facility at Tomago. It is near Newcastle in New South Wales — in the heart of coal country. After spending 7 years looking for sites around Australia, they settled on Newcastle because of its ports and access to import–export markets. It was also 7 years of battling the naysayers.

“Nobody believed that we could do battery manufacturing. Nobody thinks we have the skills. ‘We don’t do manufacturing in Australia anymore.’” 

Brian expects that 60% of the batteries produced will end up going to Southeast Asia. So, they will be designed for hot, humid climates. The new manufacturing facility, Renaissance One, will open in October 2022 and scale up to 1 gigawatt (GW). Yes, just enough to call it a gigafactory. It will be the first battery cell manufacturing facility in Australia, using Australian minerals and components. Battery cell manufacturing will commence in 2023.

Initially some resources will have to come from overseas — particularly the US and Europe. We recently announced three new Australian supplier agreements that will contribute to 92% of our locally sourced components as we look to achieve 100% of local sourcing in the near future.

Why Energy Renaissance? 7 years ago at the age of 49, Brian met with a fellow group of engineers and had a chat about the future of energy. They said it had to be renewables or nuclear. “But don’t worry about generation, what we really need is a lot of storage.” He knew it was theoretically possible to make batteries in Australia — we have all the raw materials — but it took a couple of years to work out how to make it economical. “We need to operate like the world is on fire, because it is. We want to do something, not just complain.”

Then, he just ran out of reasons not to do it. “Experts looked me in the eye and said, ‘Australia doesn’t manufacture anymore. You can’t do it, and you shouldn’t do it.’ We had to exhaust every possibility. ‘You won’t be able to get your components because they have to come from China.'”

Covid changed everything. Post-covid people are more supportive of domestic production, importing doesn’t look so clever anymore. Australia needs to be self-reliant. Brian decided that to make it work, he had to split the process into two stages. Initially, Energy Renaissance will import cells, but next year it will make LFP cells.

Brian explained to me that there are 14 steps from minerals to cell. Energy Renaissance is starting at step 5 (steps 1–4 involve digging up the minerals and turning them into sludge). There are many more regulations covering steps 1–4. Energy Renaissance can cut red tape in half by starting at 5. Europe, the US, and Australia will be supplying the minerals. No cell material will be used from China. The US will also supply semiconductors that will be used to populate circuit boards. This will be done by GPC Electronics, Australia’s largest contract electronics manufacturers in Penrith, NSW.

A battery cell uses lots of steel, aluminum, graphite, and other minerals that can come from Australia. As soon as Australian miners and refiners can provide product, that material will be used. BHP Nickel West is able to supply battery-grade nickel. VSPC supplies LFP. And there are several graphite companies in South Australia, such as Syrah Resources, that can supply material for the up and coming Gigafactory Down Under.

One area of manufacturing that Brian hopes will be revived is that of the making of superfine copper. Australia used to do this, but it appears to be a lost art. It is needed for battery production, and Brian is trying to encourage its return to Australia.

Applications for Energy Renaissance batteries include stationary storage and heavy vehicles. Brian stressed that he is not making batteries for cars. Information about their product range is here.

He cannot speak too highly of the help given to Energy Renaissance by CSIRO. They provided the R&D and helped with commercialization. The BMS (Battery Management System) developed in conjunction with CSIRO has high cybersecurity and means the batteries could well be used by Australia’s Defense force. A cyberattack could disable a susceptible battery and disrupt the grid.

“We couldn’t have got there without the CSIRO. We’ve been joined at the hip for 7 years. It was worth every penny. They helped figure out map to raw materials — where it is, how do we get it. They turned our PowerPoints into products. CSIRO are like brains on a stick.”

As well as the CSIRO, there was co-funding from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre and support from the Innovative Manufacturing CRC for manufacturing.

Brian sees Energy Renaissance as a catalyst for Australian battery manufacturing. They won’t be the biggest. But if they can give a supplier a bankable 5-year contract, it may spur the investment that the fledgling industry needs. He expects Energy Renaissance to be a speedboat amongst cruisers. The work of CSIRO made it easier for them to be flexible and react faster.

In a final lament, Brian tells me that though there was no shortage of politicians who wanted to kiss babies in front of the factory, there was but zero financial support from the federal government.

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David Waterworth

David Waterworth is a retired teacher who divides his time between looking after his grandchildren and trying to make sure they have a planet to live on. He is long on Tesla [NASDAQ:TSLA].

David Waterworth has 729 posts and counting. See all posts by David Waterworth