HPeople and batteries make a bad mix: water and dust can cause devastating short circuits and risk raging fires in the cells that power electric cars. As a result, the few people allowed into the vast clean rooms at Envision AESC’s Sunderland factory have to don a body suit and first go through an air shower. Even the Guardian’s notebook has switched to lint-free paper.
Once inside, robots rule the lines. They cut rolls of electrode material, stack them on top of each other, and weld them with a precision not possible with human hands before injecting them with electrolyte, which allows lithium ions to move in one direction and electrons in another, and Engines power the Nissan cars that were made next door.
“It’s the precision required to manufacture batteries,” says Chris Caygill, the plant’s general manager. “Everything has to be assembled to the millimeter.”
The high-tech plant and a much bigger brother under construction a few hundred yards away are the big hope for the British auto industry. A huge wave of investment is raging while huge factories around the world try to meet the huge surge in demand as countries start banning petrol and diesel engines, starting from 2025 in Norway and 2035 in the UK and EU. The UK government-funded Faraday Institution has 41 projects in Western Europe that are either operational or in the pipeline.
But the UK’s place in that future seems far from certain. Only three of these projects are in the UK. The Envision works make up two. The third is Britishvolt, a startup that was heavily backed by the government but is now failing.
This article, the third in a series on Britain’s battery ambitions, looks at whether the government is doing enough to boost industry – and whether the UK has missed its chance to manufacture a key part of the zero-carbon economy.
Britain had a head start. The Sunderland plant has been producing batteries since December 2012 when it was opened by Nissan and partners to make cells to power its pioneering Leaf electric car. Japan-based Automotive Energy Supply Corporation (AESC) was bought by Chinese conglomerate Envision in 2018.
Its expansion plans, which have provided a major morale boost for the UK car sector, will eventually see the workforce increase from the current 440 to 4,400 as a second, much larger plant is built in two phases. The capacity of batteries that can be manufactured in a year will increase from 1.8 GWh to 9 GWh and then to 38 GWh by 2024, enough to manufacture around 600,000 car batteries per year.
Envision AESC CEO Shoichi Matsumoto expects global battery demand to grow six or seven times compared to the current market. He is looking for investors to finance a huge program to build battery factories.
“That’s why Envision has a very aggressive expansion plan,” he says, pointing to plans in the UK, France, the US, Japan and China. “Volume is very important to us.”
The magnitude of the Envision pledge has cast an unforgiving light on the rest of the UK’s Gigafactory effort. Britishvolt considered entering administration this week as it was running out of cash until a last-minute deal with mining company Glencore, an existing investor, gave it five weeks of breathing space. Projects at Coventry Airport and an industrial park in Somerset are seen as promising by some investors but have yet to attract investors such as automakers or the big battery companies that dominate global supply, including China’s CATL, Korea’s LG or Japan’s Panasonic.
Ian Henry, director of consultancy AutoAnalysis, says it will be very difficult for the UK to attract gigafactories without anchor customers. Ideally, these customers would be nearby.
“It’s cart before horse,” he says, adding that there are no examples in the world of “a battery factory built and equipped to produce tens of thousands of batteries a year with no customers or working product.”
At the level of individual car factories, it’s difficult to see where these anchor customers will come from. The Vauxhall plants will likely be able to draw on the European offering from parent company Stellantis. BMW is initially relocating the production of its electric Mini to China. Toyota in the UK is focusing — at least for now — on making hybrids with smaller battery requirements. Most others are not large enough to support a large gigafactory.
The big question remaining is when Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s largest car employer, will show its hand. Its Indian owner, Tata, has been in talks with the government over potential Gigafactory investments, including potentially buying Britishvolt or taking over the site, according to multiple sources. Tata did not comment.
David Bailey, professor of industrial strategy at the University of Birmingham, says the UK is “far behind EU countries” on policies to encourage gigafactories.
“If Britain doesn’t move soon, there is a risk it will miss out,” he says. “There is a real role for the government to coordinate all of this.”
The government has come under pressure from the Labor Party to invest in gigafactories. Shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds has pledged to support three more gigafactories in addition to those already announced.
Sourcing more materials from Europe will be possible as the industry expands, but the ideal for Sunderland – and the promised land for the government – would be to have enough gigafactories to sustain a full UK supply chain. This would bring new investments and jobs.
Envision says about 100 GWh would probably be enough. Envision’s technical director, Derek Benfield, stands in a full coverall in Sunderland’s clean room and points to the precisely thick plastic laminate that separates the electrodes in the cells. The crucial material is currently imported from Japan.
“At what point does this magnitude of demand from us mean that the supplier is investing and producing in the UK?” he says. “We’d love it if it was made in the UK.”