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Flat battery: the collapse of BritishVolt

Flat battery: the collapse of BritishVolt

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The demise of the electric car battery firm is a blow for the UK government’s attempt to phase out petrol and diesel engines by 2030. Can it still realise its electric dreams?

Aston Martin. Jaguar. Land Rover. The Mini. Those names are a source of national pride for some. But here’s the sad truth: Britain’s revered car industry is at risk.

The UK is in a race with other countries to begin large-scale production of the key component in electric cars: the lithium-ion battery.

It’s also in a race against time.

As part of its plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 the government has said the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned from 2030.

That’s seven years away, which means car manufacturers need to make decisions soon about whether the UK has the infrastructure to support the shift to making electric cars.

So, in an effort to reassure them, the government decided to put its faith in one company – a battery-making startup called BritishVolt.

“BritishVolt are the battery builders, the pioneers, the electrochemists, the engineers, the visionaries, who challenge the present to improve the future.”

Britishvolt Youtube

Britishvolt had everything going for it. It secured planning permission for a factory site, ideally located in Blythe, a spot on the Northumberland coast supplied with plenty of clean energy.

It had the backing of Glencore, the mining giant, and a pledge of £100 million from the government, which it would receive once the factory was built.

It was going to be a crucial piece in Boris Johnson’s plan to level-up the north of England.

“We are seeing Bythe Valley and many other parts of the Northeast at the forefront of the Green Industrial Revolution, delivering high-wage, high-skilled jobs across our country.”

Boris Johnson

But there were issues under BritishVolt’s bonnet.

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First, it was having trouble finding customers. Big brands like Jaguar-Land Rover weren’t biting. Large subsidies introduced by the European Union for battery production mean that it’s often cheaper to produce them in places like Slovakia.

Second, Britishvolt had trouble at the top. One of its co-founders was forced to leave the company after it emerged he’d been convicted of tax fraud in Sweden in the 1990s. The other also decided to step down.

By late 2022 the firm was struggling financially. Most of the investor cash had been spent and car-maker customers still hadn’t seen any technology that they were willing to buy.

So at the start of 2023 shareholders launched a last-ditch bid to rescue the company. But it wasn’t enough.

“Bit of breaking news we can bring you about the electric car battery company BritishVolt… they have announced that they have fallen into administration, as they were expecting to do today, and they have just announced that roughly 300 workers are being made redundant.”

Sky News

Britishvolt’s electric dream was over. But it would be unfair to lay the blame solely at the feet of the company’s bosses.   

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The UK is now playing catch-up.

Some think the reason that people are unwilling to invest in the UK is because there’s better support for battery makers elsewhere.

Here’s the Labour MP Darren Jones speaking in the House of Commons:

“The Americans have announced significant subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act. The European Union is responding by streamlining state-aid rules and announcing their own subsidies for industry in the EU. Surely the minister must recognise that businesses are being attracted to the US and EU, away from the UK.”

Darren Jones MP

And then there’s the issue of new EU rules.

“Bear in mind that by 2030, various regulations within the European Union and Europe-wide will change, in that 70 per cent of the innards of your car has to be produced locally for it to be viable for the European market. That was something that projects like this, BritishVolt, were heading for.”

News EU

That makes it much harder for the UK to compete, which is why the government needs its own Green Industrial Strategy.

The former foreign secretary William Hague thinks Brexit has made that more difficult.

Here he is talking to the News Agents podcast

“If you’re going to succeed with batteries you need big manufacturers to be in the same market using those batteries. So that’s part of the damage that has been done by leaving the EU.”

William Hague

But back to Britishvolt. What’s going to happen next?

300 people have lost their jobs. But the things that made the Britishvolt factory site so valuable in the first place – its deep sea port and access to renewable energy – haven’t gone anywhere. 

Big car makers will be watching with interest. There are even rumours that Elon Musk’s electric car company Tesla might go for it.

What’s certain is that it’ll take more than Boris Johnson’s trademark boosterism to charge up the UK’s car industry.

This episode was written by Barney Macintyre and mixed by Rebecca Moore.