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A gigafactory of one’s own

A gigafactory of one’s own

What happened to BritishVolt, the UK’s homegrown battery champion?

Long stories short

  • Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, said the country needs to build “three to four large wind turbines” per day in order to reach its target of net zero by 2045.
  • US president Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for California, after fierce storms killed 19 people.
  • A shift in the El Niño weather pattern could make 2024 the first year the world exceeds an average temperature of 1.5 degrees, according to scientists.

A gigafactory of one’s own

Britain’s attempt to enter the global race to manufacture electric car batteries is stalling. A rescue deal for BritishVolt, the UK’s only homegrown EV battery startup, has failed and the majority of its 300 staff have been made redundant.

Despite the promise of government support, backing from Glencore, and a well-placed factory site on the Northumberland coast supplied with clean energy, BritishVolt failed to attract enough customers and has collapsed into administration.

So what? In seven years, sales of new combustion engine vehicles will be banned in the UK. By then, the UK electric car industry will need 100 gigawatt hours of annual battery-making capacity in order to meet its net zero target – a third was due to be supplied by BritishVolt. 

Both the EU and the US have announced major funding and strategies to build gigafactory capacity. The UK risks losing out.

Dream vs reality. When the government pledged £100 million to the startup in 2020, ministers envisioned it would bring prosperity to the North and deliver green self-sufficiency post-Brexit. But the reality is UK plc is lagging in the race to build gigafactories: just three of Europe’s 41 open or planned sites are located in the UK. The only UK factory up and running is owned by NorthVolt, a Swedish company that boasts $55 billion of orders from car manufacturers and started producing batteries last year.

Critics say that BritishVolt’s initial £800 million valuation was overblown – but that’s not the only reason for its demise. 

  • Customers. Although it has secured exploratory deals with Lotus and Aston Martin, what BritishVolt lacks is the patronage of a large car-maker. “Lotus will barely make 2,000 vehicles a year going forward, maybe 3,000. Aston Martin might make 8,000. That is not enough to justify a battery factory,” says Ian Henry at AutoAnalysis. “Other than Jaguar-Land Rover I’ve always found it very difficult to see where UK demand for battery cells made by BritishVolt was going to come from.” That opportunity may have passed; last week the finance director of Tata Motors, JLR’s parent company, suggested moving battery production to Slovakia.
  • Product. BritishVolt had initially planned to licence technology from existing manufacturers but later decided to develop its own in-house technology. But potential clients say prototypes have been late to arrive. “They could have easily had a collaboration with Jaguar by now, but they didn’t have any technology to share with them and this created issues,” says founder Lars Carlstrom, who left the company in 2020.
  • Management. BritishVolt’s other founder, Orral Nadjari, was advised by the board to step down as CEO in August because, according to the Financial Times, “investors were put off by his style.” People familiar with the company say that at one point it had 300 workers on payroll, despite having never generated any revenue. The factory in Blyth is supposed to come online in 2025 but construction has been slow to start. BritishVolt refused to comment for this article.

But it would be unfair to argue that the firm’s problems are solely of its own making. Being located in the UK is no guarantee of winning contracts with British automakers – for example, BMW has decided to import batteries for the Mini, built in Oxford, from Germany. At the same time automakers are increasingly bringing battery production in-house. Volkswagen and Stellantis both have plans for their own factories in Europe.

The UK’s head start in technology is challenged by European governments working hard to grow the sector with subsidies. Germany has pledged €1 billion of support for production. Poland and Hungary are setting up special economic zones. 

And in the background looms China’s substantial control of the processed lithium required to make batteries in the first place. It currently controls 77 per cent of global gigafactory capacity, according to Benchmark Minerals Intelligence.

The boosterism that launched BritishVolt is drained. It failed to demonstrate it could secure orders or produce tech on time. When it ran out of funds, no one was willing to step in. So much for a British battery revolution.

A message from

Companies are investing more time producing climate risk disclosures based on the TCFD recommendations. However, these disclosures are not translating into actionable strategies to accelerate decarbonisation. The EY report analyses the reasons behind this by reviewing the disclosures made by 1,500 companies across 47 countries.

This is sponsored by EY


On a mission

Chris Skidmore, the Conservative MP tasked with reviewing the policy of getting to net zero emissions by 2050, said on Monday that the decision to approve a new coal mine in Cumbria was a “mistake”. He added that if the recommendations in his report had been in place, it would not have been approved. Skidmore’s review calls for the phase-out of gas boilers in homes by 2033, two years earlier than planned, and scaling up solar power from the current 14GW to 70GW by 2035. He warns of an “inconsistent” net zero policy environment that is harming investment. These are fine words, but little of this seems likely to be adopted by a prime minister who shows scant interest in the climate crisis – which he says will be solved by “innovation”. As Skidmore’s report shows, net zero requires much more commitment from government.


Southern sunshine

A Korean solar company is planning to take advantage of subsidies introduced in Biden’s climate bill to build a $2.5 billion solar plant in the state of Georgia. Hanwha Qcells’ announcement is the largest solar investment in US history and represents a major step in balancing the global supply chain for solar away from China and towards the US. Qcells explicitly mentioned the incentives contained within the US Inflation Reduction Act as the reason for its move. In 2021, Georgia’s Democrat Senator Jon Ossoff introduced a bill that would have provided a tax break for solar manufacturers, which was eventually included in the IRA. It appears to be paying off.


Muddy Greens

Police forcibly removed the last remaining climate activists from the German village of Lützerath on Saturday as the government prepared to demolish it to make way for a coal mine. In a speech to more than 15,000 protesters Greta Thunberg took aim at the Green Party for signing a “shameful” deal with RWE, one of Europe’s largest coal producers, to excavate the site. Activists then attempted to retake the town but were met with truncheons and pepper spray. It now seems that Lützerath’s fate is sealed; RWE has won an extensive legal battle to secure demolition rights and its machinery is already tearing up the village. But the struggle also has dangerous consequences for the Greens, which now faces a split between the so-called “realo” pragmatists, led by economy minister and vice-chancellor Robert Habeck, and the party’s more youthful activist wing.


What Exxon knew

Half a century ago scientists at Exxon were making remarkably accurate predictions about how much burning fossil fuels would warm the planet. But for decades the company publicly denied the link. An analysis of internal global warming projections – the most produced by any single company – shows that they closely tracked subsequent real temperature increases of around 0.2 degrees per decade. Exxon’s scientists even excluded the possibility that humans weren’t to blame. Nevertheless Exxon continues to say that “those who talk about how ‘Exxon Knew’ are wrong in their conclusions.” Dr Geoffrey Supran, author of the study by the Potsdam Institute, said: “We now have airtight, unimpeachable evidence that ExxonMobil accurately predicted global warming years before it turned around and publicly attacked climate science and scientists.”

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

Additional reporting by Jeevan Vasagar. Graphic by Katie Riley.

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