RUPERT BATES talks to battery giant Britishvolt about the new homes industry’s challenges and opportunities
We’ve all witnessed it. A child rips open a Christmas present to unveil a shiny new toy racing car; remote control excitedly to hand and… nothing happens. Batteries not included.
Batteries are as frustrating as they are necessary. Technology kicks on, but battery power, whether it is fuel for your laptop or phone, appears stuck in the dark ages, buried, like those spare AAAs, in the back of the drawer, but rarely the right size at the right time for the right gadget. You know you have measured out your life in batteries when you realise the Duracell Bunny is now nearly 50 years old.
The humble, oft-maligned battery is about to undergo a huge brand makeover and the right battery for your electric car will become a lifestyle and work imperative.
It presents not just a massive challenge for housebuilders, but a massive opportunity; a game-changer if the industry embraces it.
Step forward Britishvolt. Its announcement last month was too big to miss, even through the blizzard of Covid-19 news. The company announced it will build Britain’s first battery gigaplant – a £2.6bn project – in Blyth, Northumberland, one of the UK’’s biggest ever industrial investments and the largest in the north-east since the arrival of Nissan in 1984, with 3000 jobs and up to 5000 more in the wider supply chain created, as it looks to produce more than 300,000 lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries a year in “the world’s cleanest and greenest battery facility”. Meanwhile Britishvolt’s headquarters and R&D centre will be at the Mira Technology Park in Nuneaton, Warwickshire – very much automotive terrain.
“At Blyth we can begin producing lithium-ion batteries for future electrified vehicles in just three years. It is crucial for the UK automotive industry and for the entire economy that we are able to power the future,” says Orral Nadjari, founder and CEO of Britishvolt, raising funds from both private and institutional investment, as well as looking for government grants, with ISG appointed as lead contractor.
The Britishvolt gigaplant will be built on a 95-hectare site and will use renewable energy, including the potential for hydro-electric power generated in Norway and transmitted under the North Sea.
That’s all very impressive, but surely one to rev the engines of the automotive world, not the housebuilding industry, Well, it’s both and a chance for new homes to drive from the front row of the renewable energy grid; not be a reluctant passenger moaning about the speed limits and seat belts of regulation on the road to a net zero carbon economy.
The stakes are high and the clock ticking, with gas boilers outlawed in new homes from 2025, although there remains deadline confusion around the Future Homes Standard timeframes as part of the government’s ‘Green Industrial Revolution’.
But the message is a robust commitment to move away from fossil fuels towards heat pumps and other renewable energy sources as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, in the garage, there is a ban on new petrol and diesel cars (ICE) from 2030, while hybrid (HEV) cars will be off the road from 2035.
‘Buy a house you can’t heat and a car you can’t drive’ won’t be the smartest marketing slogan.
Zero carbon homes from 2016 was fended off by the housebuilding industry amid strong lobbying, underpowered technology and government nerves around housing supply.
But this energy revolution is one that housebuilders can pioneer, promote and profit from, says Peter Rolton, chairman of Britishvolt.
Rolton has the ‘hybrid’ know-how and experience to drive relationships between batteries and builders, knowing how both operate, singing the body electric.
A renowned built environment engineer, Rolton is chairman of the Rolton Group, so strategising the implementation of infrastructure and renewable energy into new housing developments is in his DNA, with electric vehicle (EV) charging points the new kids on the grid.
“The right battery power and grid infrastructure can mean the difference between a new site being viable or not,” says Rolton.
Whether it is geo-technical surveying, land remediation or foundation designs, Rolton and his team have seen what lies beneath – identifying anything from Roman ruins to foot-and-mouth disease over the years. But when it comes to due diligence, his company has never been asked by a housebuilder what the grid connection is.
“They assume they will get one and it will be okay for the homes they are proposing.” For an industry that prides itself on its strategic land and pipelines, that’s hardly strategic thinking.
Housebuilders are not just going to have to change their beliefs, but their ways. “This is about a strategic vision for your site that incorporates sustainable energy delivery inside
the house and on the street,” says Rolton. “No longer is it a free design service, with pictures of hot water cylinders and radiators, from a gas boiler manufacturer if you buy their kit. The era of chucking the energy solution at the local plumber is over.”
Heat pumps and all things renewable may be the fix and the fashion, but get the installation wrong, underestimate the technical complexities and, warns Rolton, “it will end very badly”.
“This is a great opportunity for housebuilders to be at the forefront of sustainable energy technology and delivery.”
Housebuilders are passively aware there is regulatory change afoot, but you suspect the letters EV are under AOB on board agendas.
“EV is not about a plastic duct in the drive, or a spare circuit breaker. You have to think about capacity to the homes and the diversity of supply. Some local authorities are now asking for an EV strategy as part of a planning application.”
The power has to be fast and efficient, be it communal points at the entrance to a development, or on individual plots.
Invariably a housebuilder’s defence to the charge of inertia is ‘will customers be prepared to pay for it because it is an added cost?’
“People will pay for it because it is not only the way the new generation wants to live; it is how they must live. It is not just a nice to have. It’s a have to have.”
The impact on a housebuilder’s business and how it builds and operates will be radical and unavoidable. So, says Ian Braime, Britishvolt’s sales director, rather than ticking the ‘gas boiler out’, ‘heat pump in’ boxes to achieve the bare minimum, try to get ahead of the conversation as a sustainable energy champion, adding a warm glow to both the CSR (corporate social responsibility) and ESG (environmental, social & governance) lines in the annual report.
“The government is forcing it and consumer behaviour is demanding it. That’s a powerful combination,” says Braime.
The assembled team at Britishvolt is a powerful combination too. Alongside Nadjari and Rolton, other board members include chief strategy officer Isobel Sheldon, awarded an OBE in the last New Year’s Honours list and a highly experienced name and innovator in battery technology, as well as automotive specialist Charles Morgan, grandson of the founder of the Morgan Motor Company, the iconic sports car brand.
The company has all the necessary science and R&D to develop leading battery cell technology for electric vehicles and energy storage markets, not to mention an understanding of the full lifecycle of the product and the need to futureproof power supply.
But it’s not about simply commoditising the battery as the EV revolution takes hold and new entrants potentially flood the market with cheap batteries, trumpeting overnight expertise as they frantically google ‘lithium-ion’. Britishvolt can also do the integration, deployment and grid implementation, configuring what is best for a site and the housebuilder, making sure it fits together, works properly and satisfies budgets.
“If not, we are in danger of seeing new housing developments built that are unfit for purpose, with not enough energy capacity. If the infrastructure and diversity of supply is not right, you’ll have homeowners upgrading their cars and asking their local electrician to stick a bigger charger on the wall. Then ‘bang’ and half the street goes out,” says Rolton.
“Smart housebuilders will seize the commercial opportunity, but need to understand how to access it, turning more sites viable and maximising the upside by building homes that sell for more.”
It wasn’t that long ago that broadband was seen by the industry as a ‘not my problem’ additional hassle. Now a fast internet connection is non-negotiable and top of buyers’ must-have lists.
EV charge home.
For further information email: firstname.lastname@example.org