Can the UK lead the way in battery technology with new Gigaplant?

Posted on 4 Oct 2021 by The Manufacturer

Britishvolt aims to establish the UK as the leading force in battery technology by constructing the country’s first ‘gigaplant’, which at £2.6bn is one of the largest ever industrial investments in the UK. Jonny Williamson sat down with the firm's Chairman, Peter Rolton, to learn more.

Levelling up has become the catch-all phrase for tackling the long-standing issue of regional inequality. The phrase has become a keystone of UK domestic strategy with the intention to make the same opportunities available to all.

Many view manufacturing as central to turning this promise into reality, particularly in deprived, deindustrialised areas, thanks to the sector’s ability to stimulate higher productivity, wages and skills. However, with bold talk not yet being matched by bold policy, manufacturers are having to do what they do best – lead by example.

Britishvolt image

A striking demonstration of this is the plan Britishvolt has for Northumberland and the communities that reside there. Britishvolt’s £2.6bn investment in the North East of England is set to create 3,000 highly skilled jobs and up to 5,000 more across the wider supply chain. Yet, manufacturing faces a chronic recruitment challenge.

Who is going to fill these jobs?

Peter Rolton: Northumberland is an area with a strong industrial heritage, particularly in coal mining and shipbuilding; but much of that has been lost. Indeed, the 95-hectare site we’ve acquired in Cambois is the former coal stocking yard of the Blyth Power Station.

Large pockets of the North East have been seemingly ‘left behind’ and we very much see ourselves as a next-generation manufacturer helping to usher in a new age of industrial prosperity. We are deeply committed to providing employment opportunities for local communities, where the need is, in the areas around Blyth, Cambois, Ashington and Bedlington.

Britishvolt UK CEO, Peter Rolton
Britishvolt UK CEO, Peter Rolton

We intend to provide well-paid skilled and semi-skilled jobs, and, like most businesses, we will operate a production training facility on-site. This will be where prospective workers will learn about our operations and safety procedures, as well as how to operate specific machines.

What sets Britishvolt apart is what we’re doing for those who aren’t yet at that level, those who don’t have the basic level of education required to undergo a training programme or an apprenticeship. Knowing we never want to turn people away led us to establish the Britishvolt Future Generation Foundation.

I will chair the foundation’s board and it will be supported by Britishvolt in terms of premises and direct grant, but it’s a charitable entity separate from our main operation. Its principle purpose will be to create pathways to employment by providing basic adult literacy and numeracy, CV writing, life skills, even drug and alcohol programmes.

All the things people need to turn their life around and climb the ladder. Having gone through the foundation, people will then be guaranteed an interview with Britishvolt. And even if they don’t come and work for us, they are more employable.

That’s how seriously we’re taking this. We’re in the process of buying a former department store in Ashington town centre, right on the high street, next to the train and bus station. The site is going to be completely refurbished and become Britishvolt’s permanent community engagement hub and the point of contact for the foundation.

It’s all too easy to point the finger and say that schools and colleges aren’t providing industry with the right people; but people need to know what they need to know, you have to understand the opportunity to know what course or skills are needed to pursue it.

The hub in Ashington will have four floors, one will be set up to host groups of school children to and teach them about what zero carbon means, how batteries are made and what the future looks like.

Catch them young and get them on the right career path, that’s a big part of what we want to achieve. The ground floor will have a coffee shop run by a charity which trains ex-offenders to become baristas; and the top two floors will be formal teaching rooms.

It’s a multi-tiered strategy with a strong emphasis on community engagement, jobs, apprenticeships, work experience placements and helping those who have missed out on opportunities, for whatever reason, to get back on the employment ladder.

As well as being the right thing to do, we’ve heard a consistent message from the banking and investor community around the importance of having a strong environmental, social and corporate governance agenda. In building this business from the ground up, we’re able to do ESG from scratch, and do it in the right way.

What about your environmental commitments?

The target we’ve set for ourselves is to manufacture the most sustainable, low carbon battery cell in the world. Most would assume that starts with zero-carbon, renewable energy sourced direct from the grid or on-site via solar panels. However, our needs and our mindset demand we go further than that.

Roughly, you need 50 megawatts for every 10 gigawatt hours of battery production. That volume is very challenging for most district power network operators to supply, if they can o it at all. Rather than view that as a barrier, we’re seeing it as an opportunity to do something innovative.

We’re going to build our own private grid coming off the connections left from the two power stations across the road, that’s why the Cambois site is so perfect. The plan is to build a 225 MWVA substation in phase one and a second in phase two.

Britishvolt diagram of a gigaplant

At 450 MVA, we will likely operate the largest private substation network in the UK. This will feed our factory as well as our co-located suppliers. That power will be cheaper than a traditional arrangement via a district network operator.

Our ultimate goal is to directly connect wind farms in the North Sea to our private grid, and we’ve already started a conversation around that. Doing so would provide a wholesale green price directly powered off renewable sources, which is very exciting.

There is a gas main at the edge of the site, should we want to make use of it; but right now, our intention is not to use it. We’re also currently exploring the feasibility of using boreholes to meet our water needs rather than mains, which has quite a high associated carbon footprint. The building will also have 28 megawatt solar panels on the roof.

Current battery recycling infrastructure looks fragmented at best and ill-prepared to handle mass production. What are you doing to improve that process?

I do think the industry is lagging behind on the recycling side. There are still many unanswered questions. Will the batteries come back to us or will they go to a Battery Energy Storage [BES] business? Will the cost of batteries come down so much that it’s not worth giving them a second life in static storage and they go straight to recycling? Suffice to say, we know we want to do it and we are looking at it; but it’d be wrong for me to say we’re going to do X, Y and Z because we don’t believe those technologies are mature at the moment.

Much of battery R&D is focused on power management, performance, charge time; there needs to be more effort around the recycling and reuse piece. It needs to catch up with the rest of the industry.

We’re working with partner organisations, academia and the chemical sector to create our own recycling capabilities and technology facility, the Infinity Centre. This will be a major step forward and we expect recycling to really take off once production volumes reach critical mass in the late 2020s onwards.

Image of Image of proposed gigaplant - Britishvolt
Britishvolt has acquired exclusive rights to the former site of the Blyth Power Station

Additionally, there’s no accepted method of carbon mapping for the industry currently. One of the things we’re attempting to do is create one. We’ve engaged with a company and set them the brief to not only measure the carbon embedment within our factory build, but to generate a lifecycle audit methodology from raw materials through the supply chain, to manufacturing, use and back again.

You’re clearly taking a holistic approach to ESG, one based on collaboration and innovation. How is that approach mirrored in your supply chain management? If you’re serious about ESG, you have to amplify that up and down your supply chain. We believe that to be a true pioneer in not just battery cells but manufacturing generally, Britishvolt must lead by example and ensure that our supply chain is as ethical, low carbon and sustainable as possible. A great example of that is the long-term strategic partnership we’ve just entered into with Glencore, the world’s largest industrial producer and recycler of cobalt.

Cobalt is a key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries, and knowing that we are being supplied with responsible produced cobalt is a strong signal to the market that we are living by our values. We’ve even gone so far as to insist that our builder [ISG] and their principle contractor [NG Bailey] create new apprenticeships every year as part of the construction. Even though these bricklayers, plumbers and electricians will never work for Britishvolt, the building of our factory and our supplier park will create a new cohort of skilled trades people.

The message we’re saying to suppliers is to come and co-locate with us, build your factory next to ours. We’re already looking at acquiring further land parcels and we’re working closely with Advanced Northumberland and Northumberland County Council to help facilitate that. We view our suppliers as long-term strategic partners and we want them to share in the infrastructure, the cheaper electricity and the other benefits that are unlocked by being co-located.

*All images courtesy of Britishvolt

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