Australian Tesla chair Robyn Denholm hints Elon Musk could open car factory

Australia’s most senior Tesla executive has hinted the electric vehicle giant could open a local manufacturing plant.

Tesla board chair Robyn Denholm told the National Press Club in Canberra the company wanted to have manufacturing capability on every continent.

She said Tesla needed to “be in all of the major markets” in order to compete in a world moving towards the widespread use of electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries.

“Producing vehicles on continents is important,” Ms Denholm said on Wednesday.

“Because when you’re when you’re setting a supply chain for the long term, you want … the kilometres those cars travel before someone actually owns (them) to be as short as possible.

“And that includes shipping and sea freight because, again, all of those processes add to CO2 emissions.”

Ms Denholm said Tesla was looking to rapidly expand its production capability and had recently opened factories in Berlin and Texas, in addition to existing facilities in China and in California, Nevada and New York in the US.

Some of these facilities, which Tesla calls “Gigafactories”, manufacture electric vehicle parts and others make solar panels, batteries and other renewable technologies.

Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes said last year he had been pushing Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk to build a local “Gigafactory”.

“I’ve called him again, I’ve done a little bit of lobbying over time on the Gigafactory,” Mr Cannon-Brookes told Renew Economy’s “Energy Insiders” podcast in November 2021.

“Look, at some point, I think it makes logical sense to me. I don’t pretend to understand the internals of those businesses exactly, but it’s clear that we have a lot of the raw materials.”

Mr Cannon-Brooks played a key role in having Tesla build its large energy battery in South Australia in 2017, following an exchange on Twitter with Mr Musk.

But Tesla has been quiet on whether it has plans to build a manufacturing facility in Australia.

Ms Denholm said Tesla was likely to build more factories as part of the “exponential ramp” in manufacturing needed to fulfil its ambition of producing 20 million electric vehicles by 2030.

Ms Denholm downplayed concerns about Mr Musk’s engagement with Chinese officials in light of the US government’s push for businesses to soften their ties with China.

Asked if she was concerned about Tesla being caught up in strategic competition between Washington DC and Beijing, Ms Denholm said: “As I said, for me, markets around the world are really important.”

Ms Denholm, who also chairs the Technology Council of Australia, used her speech to the press club to urge the nation to set up the infrastructure to refine and manufacture battery cells and electric vehicles using its mineral resources.

Ms Denholm said Australia’s car manufacturing industry – which after a slow demise folded in 2017 with the last General Motors Holden – could be reignited.

“We have the skills and we can retool and get people into advanced manufacturing, which is tech and manufacturing converging,” she said.

“Tesla is a prime example of that: We’re producing vehicles in California, which is one of the most expensive places on the planet, and shipping them all around the world.”

Industry Minister Ed Husic told an information technology conference in Canberra on Wednesday that the Albanese government was committed to building renewable technology in Australia as a priority.

He said the government would earmark “up to” $3bn of its National Reconstruction Fund to support its Powering Australia Plan.

The plan includes shoring up local manufacturing capability to speed up the rollout of renewables and “potentially EVs for the transport sector”, Mr Husic said.

Originally published as ‘Logical sense’: Hint of Elon Musk’s plans for Australia