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Britain’s rush to embrace electric cars risks empowering China

That’s why the headlong rush we’ve seen towards EV production is now turning into a stampede. But because it makes sense to build such vehicles close to where the heavy battery packs are manufactured, there is now a huge focus on expanding domestic battery production, to secure the future of carmaking in the UK.

Britain so far has only one “gigafactory”, opened by Nissan in 2012, next to its carmaking plant in Sunderland. Capable of producing enough batteries in a year to store energy totaling 1.7GWh – hence the name – the facility was sold to the Chinese giant Envision in 2019.

While overall production has plummeted, multiple industry sources tell me that as EV output expands, UK-based manufacturers could soon get back to pre-pandemic levels, making more than a million cars a year. That’s important – the industry employs more than 800,000 people, including secondary domestic supply chain jobs away from the production front-line.

But getting back to a million-unit-plus car industry, based on EVs, would require massively expanded domestic battery output. Estimates vary but we’re probably looking at 100-150 GWh a year – compared to the current total of 1.7 GWh at the existing Envision plant.

This technology is developing, and a huge upgrade is planned by Envision, boosting annual production at Sunderland to 38 GWh. But there’s still a very long way to go.

Britishvolt – a start-up backed by mining giant Glencore – has been trying to raise capital to build a 30 GWh battery plant in Cambois, near the port of Blyth, just north of Newcastle. That would certainly help in filling the looming hole in UK EV cell production.

Cambois is a highly attractive site, already hooked up to the national grid and benefitting from proximity to some of the world’s best offshore wind facilities – enough to power multiple gigafactories. But Britishvolt apparently failed to raise enough private capital to unlock £100m of government funding – and fell into administration earlier this month.

While other suitors are showing interest in the Cambois site, I can’t help thinking potential investors are mindful of how keen ministers are to expand EV battery production. With this long-awaited plant still barely beyond the planning stage, the key role of the Northeast in the UK’s “green industrial revolution” seems less convincing.

The broader leveling up strategy, in fact, key to this Government’s electoral fortunes, is then called into question – less a serious set of policies than a campaigning slogan. I suspect investors are waiting for ministers to up the stakes, pledging more – much more – than £100m of public money, to get “spades in the ground” at Cambois before the next general election.

The collapse of Britshvolt has also raised questions about the pace of the move towards EV. Is the UK ready for the looming 2030 deadline? Is the EV route really the best way to go?

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