No, Tesla doesn’t buy more batteries than the PC industry
In fact, it isn’t even close! But respected sources like The Economist said that each Tesla power pack “contains up to 7,000 standard lithium-ion cells of the sort found in laptops. The firm is said to buy more of these sorts of cell than all the world’s computer-makers combined.” [Emphasis mine]
Although that statement is wrong, I have figured out where so many sensible reporters make the same mistake. Tesla made about 7,500 cars in the first quarter of 2014, so annualising that gets us to about 30,000 cars for the year. At 7,000 ‘standard lithium-ion cells’ (more on that in a second) anybody can calculate that they will need about 210 million Li Ion cells. And 210 million is pretty close to the number of laptops that will sell this year!
But laptops contain power packs of multiple cells, just as Teslas do. There aren’t seven thousand cells in your portable PC, but the average is over six cells per pack, and there are laptops with more. See picture below.
On average, that means the PC industry still uses over 1.2 billion lithium-ion cells per year, and that’s not even counting replacement battery packs!
To be clear, Tesla uses what are what are called 18650 cylindrical Lithium Ion cells in its packs. Most laptops use the same battery type, but not all: some of the hybrids, ultrabooks and similar computers like the Mac Air use a flat pack form factor.
So the total number of 18650 batteries used for laptops is likely a bit less than a billion per year. Then again, not all Teslas use 7,000 cells: that’s just the S85 model, and the S60 would use about 5,000 cells. Tesla has never disclosed the S60/S85 sales mix, but if even 25% of models sold are using the smaller packs, then the average cell count would fall to about 6,500 per car, or ‘only’ 195 million cells for 2014.
That’s a LOT of cells! And it will grow as Tesla sells more cars. And demand for cylindrical cells from the laptop industry will fall as ultrathins gain share.
But, despite what you have heard, Tesla does not buy more batteries than the laptop industry: in fact they are almost certainly no more than one fifth the volume by units.