In July, to much fanfare, Nissan announced it will invest in a new ‘gigafactory’ with the capacity to produce 100,000 electric vehicle (EV) batteries a year, as well as a new EV crossover, at its existing site in Sunderland in the north-east of England, in partnership with Chinese battery-maker Envision.

The decision by the Japanese car-making giant, which could create as many as 6,000 new jobs, was described by Boris Johnson “a massive boost to Britain’s economy”, and constitutes a significant feather in the prime minister’s cap as he attempts to sell his post-Brexit economic vision for the UK.

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There is much, much more to do, however. The global transition from internal combustion engines to electrified and battery electric vehicles is accelerating. The cost of batteries is more than 80% lower than it was just a decade ago, when they averaged $1,000 per kilowatt hour (kWh). Once that figure gets down to around $100/kWh, they will cost roughly the same as an internal combustion engine.

This could happen three to six years before the UK government demands drivers switch away from new petrol and diesel cars in 2030, meaning EVs will then become a cheaper option for consumers.

UK lags behind Europe in terms of battery capacity

The majority of the world’s EV batteries are produced in Asia however. If European carmakers as a whole, and the UK sector in particular, is to compete from a position of strength and hit emissions reduction targets – the UK’s ‘Net Zero by 2050’ strategy is one of the most ambitious in the world – many more gigafactories like the one in Sunderland will need to be built in order to meet demand.

By 2025, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders forecasts that the UK will have only 12GWh of lithium-ion battery, compared with 91GWh in the US, 32GWh in France, and 164GWh in Germany.

In a recent article, Just Auto editor David Leggett points out that, from 2024, under the terms of the UK-EU’s Brexit trade deal, rules of origin requirements will tighten. This means that to qualify for tariff-free circulation in the EU, local content (i.e. UK and EU-sourced components) will need to be higher than it currently is on EVs made by Nissan in the UK.

Nissan would prefer to meet that requirement with UK-made batteries, rather than the alternative of long-distance imports from the continent.

“However, as the industry transitions to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) from today’s low market penetration (currently less than 10% of new car sales are BEVs in the UK), there is still a long way to go for the country’s automotive industry in terms of being globally competitive and having sufficient supply chain manufacturing capacity – especially in batteries – to meet the vehicle manufacturers’ much higher-volume future needs,” Leggett stated.

“The Nissan announcement is a start. Make no mistake though, the UK is faced with very serious competition from future high-volume factories across the English Channel.”

Why battery storage is key to the energy transition

Global efforts to decarbonise energy systems mean that large-scale coal and nuclear power plants are gradually being phased out in favour of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar PV.

In addition, as more and more power supplies that are erratic in terms of demand, such as EVs, are connected to the grid, so the demand for electricity becomes increasingly distributed and unstable.

This has significant implications for grid operators and around security of supply. Renewables disrupt the traditional model of constant, centralised power and make grid control more complex. Without the backup of grid-level energy storage, renewables are naturally intermittent because of weather conditions (the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine) and source availability.

As a result, battery energy storage systems such as stationary lithium-ion batteries in homes and businesses, or in the field at remote sites or substations, that are able to store electricity and, when charged, release it on demand, are set to play an increasingly important role in the energy transition.

A football field-sized example came online just last month in the village of Minety in Wiltshire, UK. The biggest storage battery in Europe, it was built by Shell subsidiary Pensa Power and is designed to store excess energy generated from renewable sources and then feed it into the National Grid, as well as the Scottish and Southern Energy electricity transmission networks.

The initial 100MW project is being funded by the Chinese state-owned electricity generation enterprise China Huaneng Group and the Chinese sovereign wealth fund CNIC Corporation.

Eventually, the 150MW facility will comprise three 50MW adjacently-located battery units that utilise lithium-iron-phosphate/ternary lithium battery technology for storing electricity. Each unit will have multiple inverters for discharging the stored electricity in alternate current.

When fully charged, the battery will be capable of powering approximately 15,000 homes for a day. A 132kV substation is also being constructed to absorb as well as evacuate power into the grid.

Buildings as batteries? Innovations and ethical dilemmas

In Gothenburg, Sweden, researchers at Chalmers University have developed a world-first concept for a rechargeable, cement-based battery that could hold 10 times more power than previous models.

The researchers mixed conductive carbon fibres into cement, a major component of concrete, to substitute for an electrolyte, and also embedded layers of a carbon-fibre mesh, coated in either nickel or iron, to act as the plates. The rechargeable cement-based battery has an average energy density of seven watt-hours per square metre. The researchers estimate that 200m2 of concrete battery would be required to “provide about 8% of [a typical home’s] daily electricity consumption”.

After water, concrete is the most widely consumed material in the world. According to the scientists, potential applications for the new rechargeable battery range from powering LEDs and providing 4G connections in remote areas, to cathodic protection against corrosion in concrete infrastructure.

“It could also be coupled with solar cell panels for example, to provide electricity and become the energy source for monitoring systems in highways or bridges, where sensors operated by a concrete battery could detect cracking or corrosion,” suggests Chalmers University researcher Emma Zhang.

There is also an ethical dimension to the proliferation of battery and battery storage technologies.

Industry projections suggest that the market for lithium-ion batteries will grow to $100bn in 2025.

According to a recent editorial in Nature, around 70% of the world’s cobalt – an important part of a battery’s electrode – is found in just one country: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Around 90,000 tonnes, or 90%, of the DRC’s annual cobalt production comes from its industrial mines, but surging global demand for the commodity has attracted thousands of individuals and small businesses, called artisanal miners, resulting in child labour and unsafe working practices.

Addressing this issue, as well as the necessity to reuse more batteries rather than recycle or dispose of them in landfills, must also be prioritised by governments and industry if the battery and battery storage boom is to benefit everyone, not just those living in the tech-obsessed developed world.