Michelle Duggan, Inward Investment Manager at Invest North East England, reflects on a busy month for all matters electrification.

September is always a busy time of year in the electrification calendar, and 2023 has been no exception. It marks the new wave of vehicle registrations and partners in the North East look forward to the annual showcase of the region’s automotive capabilities at the North East Automotive Alliance Expo at the Beacon of Light.

At the beginning of the month, on the national stage, anyone involved in the low carbon mobility industry, packed the children off to school and headed down to Cenex LCV at the Millbrook Proving Ground. This event, an annual highlight for the low carbon vehicle industry, consistently attracts key leaders from automotive, battery and technology sectors and is the focus of attention for product, policy and funding announcements.  

This year, there was a strong regional contingent championing Electric North East England, a partnership from industry, academia, and innovation specialists stood alongside inward investment experts to demonstrate the wealth of opportunity in the region. With a flagship exhibition stand, the region was well-placed to attract interest from the 5,000+ visitors.

A key feature of CENEX is the ability to meet the decision-makers in industry, innovative SMEs and global players come together to demonstrate products at the forefront of low carbon technology.  Importantly, the senior business leaders as well as policy makers from UK government and further afield are joined by strategic national players, like the Advanced Propulsion Centre to promote the very best that the UK has to offer in low carbon vehicle technology.

Skills demand tops the agenda

For EV and battery manufacturers, skills are a critical issue and there is a pressing need to address the immediate and future skills requirement of the industry. Therefore, it was truly exciting to hear the announcement at CENEX that the North East will host the National Battery Training Academy. Under the leadership of Newcastle University, with support from New College Durham, a proposal aimed at equipping the industry with essential skills has secured £1.3 million in funding from the Faraday Battery Challenge. This funding will be channelled towards delivering training programmes for both the current and future workforce, aligning with the projected growth in demand for these skills. The project will also develop clear pathways into battery related careers, including developing battery degree apprenticeships, as well as upskilling the existing workforce.

It’s clear that the industry is growing in the North East and we are accelerating the transition towards electrification building on our well-established net zero credentials. The scale of this growth also demands innovation and increasingly technology is providing solutions to deliver novel methods to engage learners. Fuzzy Logic Studio, a North East-based tech firm, used the Electric North East stand to demonstrate how immersive technologies will revolutionise the way future generations of new learners to engage in training and development.

Attracting international interest

In partnership with the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), the North East team hosted an inward delegation of 30 overseas companies from important target markets for electrification inward investment. These companies came from as far afield as India and Japan, and importantly included a cohort from our primary market, the United States. There is a keen interest in the region’s innovative ecosystem including the NEAA’s V-CAL project demonstrating the viability of connected autonomous logistics and Newcastle University’s ambitious £multi-million plan for an Electrification Process Innovation Cluster, a centre of excellence in batteries, power electronics, machines and drives manufacturing processes, performance and end of life for batteries.

US Battery Show, Detroit

The chance to meet with international investors on UK soil allows us to have direct conversations with companies that are already considering the UK as a location for expansion and growth. However, we often hear that North East is not shouting loudly enough about the amazing capabilities and assets that we have to support growth and innovation. So it’s important to take the message directly to a global audience. I was fortunate to be part of the delegation, supported by DBT and the Advanced Propulsion Centre that made up the UK presence at the US Battery Show in NOVI, Detroit.

The US Battery Show spans three days and attracts over 15,000 visitors in addition to an expo of 800 companies encompassing hybrid technology, EVs, batteries and a wide range of other technologies including energy storage. The scale of the automotive and battery industry in the Michigan area is huge, building on the ‘Motown’ legacy, and there is a palpable excitement about the transition towards electrification.

The impact of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is already noticeable, with the scale of internal investment in net zero in the US accelerating exponentially.  Is it clear from the discussion at the show, that the UK was seen as one of the countries at the forefront of EV and electrification policy and adoption when the US government introduced this measure to increase investment in net zero industries.  It is vital that we continue to showcase our capabilities on a world stage or risk falling behind and losing out on potential new investment to grow the regional economy.

In addition to the incentives that the US government is providing to individual companies through the IRA, regional players see the opportunity to build infrastructure and invest in innovation to sustain these industries and accelerate their development.

The Battery Lab at the University of Michigan is a well-established facility, founded in 2015, has recently secured additional state funding to expand. This will enhance academic research capability in the area and is in line with announcements from GM and Toyota to increase investment in battery R&D in Michigan, along with a massive $185m investment from Ford in their own battery facility   The view of the US academics is that Asia is still at the forefront of battery innovation and, while Europe may have been second in terms of battery technology, the US is catching up fast. We need to continue to invest in academic research, industry R&D, and infrastructure to keep pace with these developments.

Irrespective of recent announcements about net zero targets, we’re still in a really strong position in the UK and particularly in the North East, having the UK’s first operational gigafactory. The appetite for EVs is undiminished and growth for off-highway applications of electrification technologies is strong, so the market is still there, but it is important that we continue to raise the profile of our capabilities to and have a proactive presence in international markets to demonstrate how we can help companies expand in the UK and fundamentally create jobs and economic growth in the region.

And so we look forward to next September, when the North East will host the national Faraday Institution conference. Attracting 500+ delegates in battery technology R&D, we have the opportunity to build on our efforts at CENEX LCV and the US Battery Show by demonstrating, first-hand, the unique ecosystem we have created to accelerate electrification transition.

To find out more about the opportunities of locating a business in North East England, contact the Invest North East England team or access the website.