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Canny news: Nissan's Sunderland plant is gaining a battery gigafactory

A billion-pound investment eases Brexit concerns and brings new Nissan EV production to the UK, too

Published: 01 Jul 2021
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Big news from Nissan. It’s announced a £1 billion investment to turn its Sunderland plant - 35 years old this month - into an electric vehicle hub. One it describes as a “world-first EV manufacturing ecosystem”.

The money’s not just come from Nissan’s coffers: it’s joined forces with battery company Envision AESC and Sunderland City Council for its ‘Nissan EV36Zero’ project that’ll see not only a new, fully electric car pumped out of the Wearside factory, but a whole battery gigafactory and solar farms to help it run cleanly.

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The upshot – and the immediate headline – is the creation of 6,200 new jobs across Nissan and its supply chain. Given the company had hinted the UK leaving the EU could draw a curtain on its vastly successful British factory, the sighs of relief across the north-east (and beyond) are palpable.

But the big story longer-term is the battery plant. It’s had UK government investment – though a figure’s not been declared – and is an essential step in securing Britain’s automotive manufacturing industry as the landscape vastly changes. It’s a nine gigawatt factory with the capability to make 100,000 Nissan batteries each year.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "Nissan's announcement to build its new-generation all-electric vehicle in Sunderland, alongside a new gigafactory from Envision-AESC, is a major vote of confidence in the UK and our highly-skilled workers in the North East.”

If the government is in celebratory mode, though, the SMMT (the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) are standing in the corner making sure everyone drinks sensibly and leaves before it gets too late. Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said: “Today’s announcement of new investment into battery production in Sunderland is great news for the sector, the region and all those employed locally.

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“If we are to build one million electric vehicles by 2030, however, we need more such commitments, with at least 60GWh of gigafactory capacity in this country by the end of the decade. The future competitiveness of our industry depends on securing these investments but also wider support for manufacturing.”

Nissan says that appropriate growth in demand for EVs could see another £1.8bn investment that’d swell its gigafactory capacity by 25GWh (and another 4,500 jobs) by 2030. That’d see it match the current capacity of Tesla’s Giga Nevada.

The car that’s also been announced is almost a footnote, but its success is likely to feed that of the gigafactory’s; based on the Renault/Nissan CMF-EV platform (from the next Megane), the sketch above shows a crossover-type thing that’ll likely replace the Leaf. It’ll be sold globally and made elsewhere, too, but Sunderland will be building Europe’s share.

There’s a bit of chicken and egg to this: without a battery plant next door, the new model wouldn’t have the percentage of UK-made content needed to see it jink through Brexit trade agreements to avoid high tariffs to land on EU shores.

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Nissan’s big announcement comes a day after Renault took us through elements of its electric future, too. The pair are alliance partners and a huge battery gigafactory is of interest to them both. There we heard that the alliance is switching to lithium-ion cells that have a nickel-manganese-cobalt cathode. Most other carmakers use lithium-iron-phosphate cathodes in their lithium-ion cells. The alliance cells are said to be 10 per cent more expensive but lighter, more durable and better in low temperatures, and because they’re being built in huge numbers to help drive down the cost.

And keeping this all as clean as possible – and helping Sunderland as a city go carbon neutral by 2040 – is a renewable energy microgrid that could see another 10 solar farms to accompany the wind farm already at the vast Nissan plant. It’d work with a bunch of old Nissan batteries taken from cars and living a second life of storing any excess energy generated above. Let's hope the sun keeps shining on Sunderland, then...

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