Less than six years ago, any conversation on the growth of the electric vehicle market would focus on whether, not when, electric vehicles would dominate our transport system.
It’s the other way around now. But how can the UK seize the initiative in transitioning to battery-powered electric vehicles?
More than 70 people attended the Bessemer Society’s latest dinner to debate the issues.
The Bessemer Society is a growing membership forum for business and academic leaders in the fields of science and technology.
David Greenwood, Professor of Advanced Propulsion at WMG, The University of Warwick, gave a keynote speech. Other speakers included Isobel Sheldon, Head of Business Development at the government-funded UKBIC (Battery Industrialisation Centre), and Richard Hankinson, Director of Automotive at Unipart Logistics and Global Account Director for Jaguar Land Rover.
Professor Greenwood highlighted the UK government’s policy to legally mandate the country moving to zero net carbon emissions by 2050.
But he pointed out that what started as a regulatory push, is now becoming a consumer pull.
“Many early adopters of electric vehicles were buying them as a lifestyle choice. As these vehicles become more affordable, they are being bought and used by more people as their daily source of transport.”
But electric vehicles still represent only four or five per cent of the market, he added. There is huge potential for growth.
The battery determines the range, cost, performance and lifetime of an electric car. Weighing around a ton and bolted underneath the vehicle, new cars are being designed around it.
For manufacturers, it also represents a hefty 40 per cent of the build and materials cost of the car, sometimes more.
The UK makes up to two billion cars a year. That’s a battery market worth about £5 billion a year, just to supply cars built in the UK. Multiply that across Europe and you get to about £50 billion, said Professor Greenwood.
And it makes sense for those batteries to be build close to the manufacturing plant.
There are established players in some markets, but there are opportunities for small and innovative companies to bring their technologies forward, he added.
“We have a big market to go for, locally and in Europe. But the converse is also true. If we are unsuccessful in building a UK battery industry, car assembly for the new generation of electric vehicles may move to plants closer to the battery manufacturer and if that’s in Europe, the UK could find itself building out a legacy of internal combustion engines.
“In terms of the technology, we have fantastic universities and start-ups and the capability to innovate in this area,” said Professor Greenwood.
That opens up a huge opportunity for supply chains. In 2017 the government set up the Faraday Challenge with £256 million of funding for the first four of an intended ten-year commitment to build a battery supply chain in the UK.
“There is an equally big opportunity around battery recycling,” said Professor Greenwood. “We can’t afford to continually dig up minerals from the ground. But we import batteries. Every one of them is a big box of expensive materials, which we could recycle.
“I am working with some companies which are interested in getting large recycling plants into the UK.”
The electric vehicle market is fast-moving and a huge industrial opportunity, said Professor Greenwood. “The UK is committed industrially and at government level to grab a big slice of this. And given what we have done in the past, we have a pretty good chance of achieving that.”