2020 was a dire year for the UK car industry, but buried amid the reports of tumbling vehicle sales was one piece of promising news.
For the first time ever, sales of electric vehicles comprised 10 per cent of all new car sales, figures from auto body the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) showed.
But with all sales of new petrol and diesel cars to be banned by 2030 under ambitious government climate plans, it also shows just how much the sector needs to change in such a short space of time.
All shifts of such nature create winners and losers, but one firm which looks destined to cash in on the race to phasing out emissions-heavy cars is battery start-up Britishvolt.
Last month the firm announced that it would build its first “gigafactory” in Blyth in Northumberland, winning the approval of both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak.
By 2027, the company estimates that the facility will produce 300,000 of the lithium-ion batteries central to electric vehicles a year – roughly 30 gigawatts.
But according to the SMMT’s latest estimates, the UK will need at least double this by 2030 – and develop up to 150 gigawatts of capacity overall.
For Britishvolt founder and chief executive Orral Nadjari, the deal couldn’t come sooner for the UK.
“We’re actually falling behind in the manufacturing race for for battery capacity in the UK”, he told City A.M.:“There’s a lot of investment going into Europe at the moment in “gigafactories” which are beginning to churn out large quantities of cells for electric vehicles.”
As important at the net zero transition, he explained, is the fact that new post-Brexit trade rules could see the country frozen out of the EV market if it cannot develop onshore battery capacity.
By 2027, cars built in the UK will need to have 55 per cent of their components built in either the EU or the UK in order to qualify for tariff-free trade.
With batteries making up around 40 per cent of electric cars by value, being able to offer a local supply chain could thus make the difference in keeping foreign auto giants in the country, Nadjari said.
“Having a localised battery manufacturer will help us to protect the industry in this country. Around 70 per cent of British carmakers are premium brands, so it’s really important that we can look after them by making a high proportion of batteries here in the UK.”
Taking on Tesla
In addition, Britishvolt has one key advantage over its competitors, chief strategy officer Isobel Sheldon said: “The modelling that we have done on the cell performance that we’ll be putting into production in 2023 shows that the energy density from our batteries will be about 30 per cent higher than anybody else on the market.
“To put that into mileage terms, it means that our batteries will push a 300 mile EV a further 60 to 70 miles further down the road.”
Fears that electric vehicles could suddenly run out of puff – so-called “range anxiety” – have been a considerable factor in the slow uptake of EVs to this point, so an improved range could be a gamechanger for the industry.
Sheldon added that the capacity improvement would help European carmakers compete with the undisputed EV market leader – Elon Musk’s Tesla.
Given the California-based firm’s extraordinary stock market performance, which has seen its shares increase sevenfold over the last year, a listing for Britishvolt seems like the logical next step, and Sheldon has confirmed that it is under consideration.
With lithium-ion batteries becoming increasingly popular in other sectors such as aerospace and energy grid storage, Sheldon added that the opportunity could extend far beyond the auto industry.
“Adjacent applications of our batteries into other industries are really important to us. The sun doesn’t alway shine and the wind doesn’t always blow when you want to use electricity, so we’ll need more storage there. And almost all industries are now looking at reducing their carbon emissions, which is another huge opportunity”, she said.
As the only firm with plans to develop new battery production in the UK at the moment, Sheldon agreed that Britishvolt was perfectly primed to take advantage of the coming shake-up of manufacturing in this country.
“Demand is clearly going to outstrip supply moving forwards which puts us in a really good position as a business”, she finished.