China is the driving force in the business of electric vehicle batteries, which European leaders see as vital to the future of the auto industry that employs millions of people across the continent.
It may be too late to catch up.
Building electric cars in China makes sense for companies because that’s where most customers are, and it enables them to avoid heavy tariffs on imported vehicles. It also puts their manufacturing plants closer to the supply chain for batteries, which account for about 40% of the value of electric cars.
“It just makes sense to produce electric vehicles where batteries are also produced,” Tagliapietra said.
About two-thirds of the world’s manufacturing capacity for lithium-ion batteries, those most commonly used in electric vehicles, is in China, according to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.
China’s giant market
China has the advantage of being the world’s biggest market for electric vehicles, accounting for about half of global sales, and international carmakers are investing there in a big way.
Even Europe’s nascent battery companies are choosing to invest in China rather than at home.
The huge facility will eventually pump out lithium-ion batteries to power 160,000 cars a year. Chairman Kees Koolen told CNN that Lithium Werks was investing in China because the infrastructure is better and it’s easier to get the permits needed to build a factory. The company said it was put off by the amount of red tape needed to invest in Europe.
“In Europe there’s a lot of hassle and a lot of procedures to follow. It takes a long time,” Koolen said. The Chinese government has a “long-term vision” for the industry, while Europe does not, he added.
China has put in place targets for electric vehicle production and offered incentives for buyers, which has helped the industry boom.
“Europe has not been able to develop a coherent and solid industrial policy,” Tagliapietra said.
An Airbus of batteries?
A big reason Europe has fallen so far behind in the battery industry is its automakers were slow to develop electric cars, according to analysts.
“They didn’t take electric vehicles seriously because they didn’t like them,” said Viktor Irle, co-founder of Swedish research firm EV-Volumes. Until recently, many of the big players focused their resources on gasoline-powered cars, he added.
Northvolt told CNN it has “a funding plan in place” and will provide more information once the European Investment Bank, which is owned by EU countries, has finished processing its application for a €400 million ($455 million) loan.
“It’s already too late” for European companies to establish themselves as large-scale makers of lithium-ion batteries, said Irle. “That train has already departed.”
Doing the same for electric batteries “could be a game-changer for the EU’s auto industry,” Montgomery said.