Britain faces potential battery supply crunch

The UK government needs to align its actions on batteries with its rhetoric on electric vehicles (EVs), the Lords have reported.

With the race on for a 2050 net zero world, so too is the race for the technology manufacturing and supply chain capabilities with the economic and other benefits they provide to deliver on this target.

This is perhaps most starkly illustrated in the world of batteries, with their raw material requirements on the one hand but on the other the wide range of technologies that can be used, some indeed still emerging.

While utility-scale and distributed stationary energy storage is a major growth market, even larger is that for EVs. According to the International Energy Agency, the number of electrically powered vehicles is set to reach 145 million by 2030, based on current trends, up from between 10 to 11 million in 2020.

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With the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in the UK in favour of EVs due to take effect in 2030 that market is set to be a key one. But in what is a stark warning from the House of Lords in a new report titled Battery strategy goes flat: Net-zero target at risk, on the current outlook, the national demand for batteries is unlikely to be met locally, automotive manufacturing will most likely move overseas and demand will have to be met using imported vehicles and batteries – or the target will be undeliverable.

The report highlights a “stark disconnect” between the optimism of ministers that the UK could retain its position in the automotive sector and the concerns of others that the country is far behind its competitors and faces significant challenges with innovation, supply chains and skills.

Nevertheless, while the UK cannot catch up with leading battery manufacturers elsewhere, the country has a real opportunity to leapfrog to next-generation batteries and achieve a competitive advantage in future. However, this would be dependent on retaining its manufacturing capacity and automotive industry and providing substantial long-term support for research and scale-up.

Some actions recommended include government support for training and upskilling to transition from a mechanical to electrical manufacturing technology and the development of a strategy for critical raw materials to support the growth of supply chains.

Another is the publication of the hydrogen strategy as soon as possible, coordinated with strategies for transport and buildings, along with support for innovation and scale-up for hydrogen technologies.

The applications of batteries and fuel cells also require significant deployment of infrastructure. Regulations and incentives will need alignment to minimise the costs of new generation and network capacity to meet increased electricity demand. There must be EV ‘charging for all’ at homes, workplaces and public locations and there must be hydrogen fuelling infrastructure at depots and on the strategic road network.

Heavy transport also needs more focus. Clarity is needed on the technological options best suited to the needs of heavy road freight, while technological solutions for shipping and aviation are far from ready.

The report concludes by stating that the government’s ambition is not matched by its actions. It must develop a coherent successor to the industrial strategy and promote its objectives clearly, both domestically and internationally, supported by investments commensurate with those of the UK’s international competitors.