The Swedish battery maker with the ignition key for Europe's switch to electric cars

Northvolt is building a huge plant to produce batteries to that will generate 60 gigawatt hours of electricity to power thousands of vehicles every year

The Swedish battery maker powering Europe's switch to electric cars

The Swedish battery maker powering Europe's switch to electric cars
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A short distance from the centre of Skelleftea, a small city in north-eastern Sweden, buses arrive early to transport construction workers who are building a mammoth electric battery plant.

The facility, which has been described as Northern Europe's largest lithium-ion battery plant, is racing to electrify the continent's automotive sector as governments restrict the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles to meet decarbonisation targets.

Set in a land of pine forests and lakes, the plant aims to have an annual production capacity of 60 gigawatt hours, enough to power hundreds of thousands of vehicles.

“We had the first steel pillar up in autumn 2019. In a couple of years, we've gone from nothing and now we have a functioning production facility,” Sanna Backstrom, a communications manager for the plant's owner, Northvolt, told The National.

Northvolt is part of the Swedish green investment company, Vargas. It provides batteries for household name car producers such as Volvo and Volkswagen.

Carl-Erik Lagercrantz, chief executive of Vargas, said the company started with a blank sheet of paper and set about deciding what “macrotrends” to tap into.

“We came to the conclusion that there’s a great opportunity here,” he said. “It’s about being an enabler for electrification of transportation. Northvolt is a key part of the European transition.”

We can guarantee 100 per cent renewable energy in Skelleftea
Dr Helena Renstrom, marketing manager for Skelleftea Municipality

Vargas also has companies working in green steel, energy storage and heat pumps, and has the ambition to mitigate one per cent of global carbon emissions.

Battery production is energy and resource intensive, but Northvolt states that its aim at Skelleftea is to produce “the world’s greenest battery”.

The facility’s power is said to come from green sources, a consequence of Sweden’s heavy investments in hydropower and nuclear power.

“We can guarantee 100 per cent renewable energy in Skelleftea and we can guarantee enough energy,” said Dr Helena Renstrom, marketing manager for Skelleftea Municipality.

As a result of this, Northvolt states that it has been able to cut emissions by 70 per cent compared to a Chinese-produced electric car battery.

The Skelleftea plant also has a significant impact on the local area.

Skelleftea Municipality has a population of around 75,000 but the aim is to grow this to 100,000 in the coming decades, as well as building 9,000 new homes.

This expansion is necessary because the population is ageing and requires an influx of younger people to support those who have retired, officials said.

Another fact is to ensure that there is the necessary workforce for companies investing in the area.

“The problem is that we have very low unemployment – 3.4 per cent. We have doubled the number of jobs compared to the number of unemployed,” Dr Renstrom said.

“This is the core of our challenge. We need more people and we need to provide possibilities for Northvolt to grow. We need to double the people who move here every 10 years. That’s a big challenge.”

While many people who grow up in the area are said to be keen to leave once they get the chance, the city and surroundings have obvious appeal.

The Skelleftea factory has succeeded in attracting people from across the global, with more than 80 nationalities working on site.

The company has around 1,800 employees, but when the plant is completed in around two years’ time, that figure is set to rise to around 4,000. Some will work in a battery-recycling plant that will be part of the complex.

One building is “basically like a large chemical plant”, said Ms Backstrom, where raw materials are processed to create substances that are used in the second plant, which makes the batteries themselves.

This “downstream” factory – 300 metres long and 100 metres wide – is vast.

One side of the building is dedicated to producing the cathodes – the negative electrodes – which are fashioned in part from rolls of aluminium foil lined up in one of the rooms. There are also huge plastic containers of BASF cathode solvent.

On the other side, there are rolls of copper foil which are used to create the anodes, the positive electrodes. The raw materials are mixed to create a “slurry”.

“After we’ve mixed the slurry, the next step is coating,” Ms Backstrom said. “What you see behind are large ovens. We kind of paint the slurry on both sides of the foil.”

Later, the battery cells are assembled when the anode and cathode are brought together and welded. They are then put into a can that is filled with electrolyte and sealed.

Then batteries undergo what is described as an ageing process.

The factory is not exclusively set up to produce vehicle batteries, but it accounts for the lion’s share of production.

Electric vehicles are set to replace cars and vans powered by internal combustion engines.

In February this year, the European Parliament voted to approve a new law banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2035.

The new rule – part of a larger effort to combat climate change in the EU – will speed up the bloc’s transition to electric vehicles.

Cars currently account for around 15 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the EU. The legislation demands that carmakers cut carbon emissions from new vehicles by 100 per cent. In practice, this means no new conventional fossil fuel-powered vehicles will be able to be sold from 2035 onwards.

However, Germany, Europe’s biggest car producer, is said to be blocking the final approval of this legislation.

In the UK, the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned from 2030, while from 2035 onwards plug-in hybrid petrol-electric and diesel-electric vehicles will be banned, leaving only “emissions-free” fully electric cars and vans in the showrooms.

Northvolt’s facility is just one of many European car battery plants in operation, under construction or planned.

Northvolt has several other locations, while Volkswagen plans half a dozen facilities in Germany, and Stellantis (which controls Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Peugeot and Citroen, among others) has a tie-up with Mercedes-Benz and Total to build factories in Germany.

There are already multiple plants planned, or operating, in France, Italy, Spain, Poland and Hungary – some of which have received investment by Chinese or Taiwanese companies.

India’s Tata, which owns Jaguar Land Rover, is set to create the UK’s first big battery plant.

Asia remains the leader on electric car batteries and there are Asian suppliers on site at the Skelleftea plant – but Europe is keen to catch up.

As the plant grows, around 100 staff are being taken on each month.

“Logistics, maintenance, operators, engineers – we have many different roles,” Ms Backstrom said.

Updated: June 24, 2023, 6:47 AM