Britishvolt’s demise is a sad story, but the events of 17 January 2023 felt like an inevitable conclusion to a long-running saga.
Fundamentally, it had no customers. What good is a gigafactory building batteries if there are no cars being built on the same island to put them in? That absence of customers is a reflection of where the UK is at the moment with its footprint of automotive manufacturing output: there are simply not enough factories making cars at volume. Britishvolt had nowhere left to turn, and the clock ran out on it.
Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s home car maker, has frequently been linked with sourcing batteries from a new gigafactory off the M5 motorway, and talk has emerged now from JLR owner Tata about building its own gigafactory “in Europe”. Not a customer for Britishvolt, in other words, and a partnership between the pair never even entered the rumour mill. That said, there’s some irony in Tata’s name now being linked with buying the Britishvolt site from the administrators. With the British-built Range Rover EV due within the next two years, it now seems certain that its batteries will come from abroad.
Nissan’s vast Sunderland factory is located next to a gigafactory, Envision AESC’s – the one major bit of good gigafactory news thus far in the UK, so that’s Nissan crossed off the list of potential customers, despite it building EVs close to Britishvolt’s Blyth site.
Toyota has yet to commit to its electric car manufacturing plans in the UK – if there are to be any – but it’s hard to imagine the scenario where a company of Toyota’s global scale and procurement potential sources batteries for volume models from a British start-up in an increasingly isolated country for automotive manufacturing.
Mini will not build next-generation electric cars in the UK before the facelifted Cooper in 2027/28, so too late anyway for Britishvolt’s planned ramp-up in the middle of the decade. Finally, it always felt an unlikely scenario for cost-obsessed Stellantis chief Carlos Tavares to put his trust in Britishvolt for Brit-built electric van batteries in this risky launch phase.
Beyond having no customers, Britishvolt didn’t seem to have any killer technology or IP on batteries that it could call its own, at least that we knew of or companies were prepared to invest in. It was a few years behind another European start-up Northvolt, which is producing batteries already – and its customers include BMW and Volkswagen. It was too late to the party.
All Britishvolt seemed to have was government backing, and a site widely regarded as the UK’s best for producing batteries, given its proximity to offshore renewable energy and a deep sea port. Yet even with the backing, the costs to ramp up were simply too enormous: wages are high relative to other UK countries, energy costs remain high too and a supply chain needed to be created. With no customers providing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it’s that word inevitable again.