The start of the first large-scale European project in this segment gives clues about the path that the initiatives in Spain will follow.

The start of the first large-scale European project in this segment gives clues about the path that the initiatives in Spain will follow.

The start of the first large-scale European project in this segment gives clues about the path that the initiatives in Spain will follow.

Image of Northvolt's gigafactory in Skelleftea, Sweden.

2022 will be year zero for the battery industry in Spain. If the forecasts of both the main players in the industry and the Government are fulfilled, at some point this year the first gigafactory will see the light. With this name, the facilities in which the key components of the products that are called to lead the new era of the Spanish automotive industry are manufactured are called: electric vehicles.

The strategic impact that this project will have for our industry as a whole will be profound. Having a gigafactory would make it possible to multiply the attractiveness of Spanish industrial plants that can be nourished by its components. The reason? Being close and well connected to one of these plants substantially reduces manufacturing costs.

At once, commissioning this facility will be a complex process. To the construction and everything related to the recruitment and training of the necessary workforce, we must add the needs that will have to be covered in terms of auxiliary industry to feed the future gigafactory with everything it needs.

The Spanish industry looks out on a virgin terrain in which there are practically no references within Europe. Practically all of the production of this type of solution was in Asia. But, even if they are few, it is possible to find mirrors to look at when starting up a gigafactory of batteries.

Origin of Northvolt

If there is a model to imitate in Europe, that is Northvolt. The Swedish company is a Rare avis since it was conceptualized from scratch. In just over four years it went from being a Power Point to outputting the first cells produced inside it. To find the origin of this project you do not have to go to the icy Swedish lands. This journey begins in balmy California.

Peter Carlsson and Paolo Cerrutithe co-founders of Northvolt, met in 2012 at the factory that Tesla has in Fremont. Both had just joined the company, but had accumulated 20 and 15 years of intense professional careers at that time. At the beginning of the last decade, the current giant of electric mobility was far from looking like what it is today.

Peter Carlsson and Paolo Cerruti, founders of Northvolt.

Peter Carlsson and Paolo Cerruti, founders of Northvolt.

Despite the little experience that Tesla had at that time, it accumulated enough experience so that its managers could foresee that the production of batteries was going to be the key factor in the development of the new electric automotive industry. It was essential to launch a large number of installations of this type to meet the future needs of the industry. A vision shared by Carl-Erik Lagercrantz and Harald Mix, promoters of a green technology investment fund called Vargas.

A LinkedIn connection and a phone call from Lagercrantz to Carlsson at four in the morning did the rest. The two ex-Teslas began working in 2016 at the preliminary analysis to start up the first large sustainable battery gigafactory in Europe. To finish propping up the initial team, they incorporated the Japanese Yasuo Anno, who had worked as a supplier for Carlsson in the past. The Japanese was going to bring his proven experience in the Japanese battery industry after having worked at Panasonic or Sony. Once the founding team was formed, they settled in Stockholm.

All prepared in 13 months

Northvolt’s first strategic plan established March 2017 as the date of the starting gun of the project. The announced objective could not be more ambitious: to create the largest battery cell factory in Europe and its entire supply chain. It would have an annual production of 40 GWh and, as if that were not enough, they added one more condition to their mission. Northvolt was to be the plant with the lowest environmental impact in the world.

In his presentation, Carlsson announced his intention to begin work on the industrial complex in 18 months. Calendar that, finally, was reduced to 13 months. At that moment, one of the most complex parts of the project began: recruit the necessary talent for an industry without any tradition in Europe. Northvolt’s initial team of about 25 people included professionals with backgrounds in Asia, Silicon Valley, and recent young European graduates. By 2020 the group already had 700 people of 70 different nationalities.

The first 25 Northvolt workers.

The first 25 Northvolt workers.

Going back to the early years of the project, along with attracting talent, Northvolt’s management team had to make one of the decisions that most profoundly marked the project: the location of industrial facilities. To meet the objectives set, a mixture of different conditions was needed. Among them, they highlighted the need to have a large area of ​​land, access to large-capacity sources of green energy, infrastructure that would allow batteries to be transported easily, the proximity of educational institutions and, above all, a great acceptance of the project among the locals.

The answer could not be better. Up to 40 municipalities in Sweden and Finland applied to be Northvolt’s industrial headquarters. Finally, Skelleftea, located 700 kilometers north of Stockholm and Västeras, 100 kilometers from the Swedish capitalThey were the finalists. The interest shown by both was so important that Northvolt’s management decided to change their plan. They located the most industrial part of the project in Skelleftea while the research center was installed in Västeras.

Key alliances for the start

Once the internal issues of the project were decided, the Northvolt team began to weave its network of alliances. This is how the first agreements were reached with ABB, Vestas, Scania, Siemens and BMW, the first car manufacturer to invest in the company. To these were added the support of both the Swedish Government and the European Union, which translated into fundamental financing for the initial moments. Somewhat later, in June 2019, Goldman Sach and the Volkswagen group would invest 1,000 million euros to begin construction of the gigafactory.

Image of the Northvolt gigafactory construction site.

Image of the Northvolt gigafactory construction site.

The construction of the research center in Västeras began in the spring of 2018, which allowed it to start its activity in 2019. The facility has 19,000 square meters and has an annual capacity to produce more than 350 MWh in batteries. The first prototypes were produced as early as 2019. A year later the first cylindrical battery cells arrived.

Work on the gigafactory in northern Sweden began in 2018 with the aim of completing the first phase in 2021. A giant with 500,000 square meters of capacity to produce 40 GWh per year in battery cells. On December 28, the first battery cell was produced at this facility. A first step to release an order book that already exceeds 30,000 million euros by 2030.

First battery produced in the Northvolt gigafactory.

First battery produced in the Northvolt gigafactory.

Companies like BMW, Fluence, Scania, Volkswagen, Volvo Cars or Polestar expect Northvolt batteries. In addition to the automotive industry, the company already has clients from other industrial sectors, paying special attention to large energy storage projects. Commercial deliveries expected to start this year.

Learnings for the Spanish industry

The future Spanish battery industry can find a great source of inspiration in the Swedish project. The PERTE calls for electric and connected vehicles will ensure that at least one project in Spain has the support of European funds and an industrial group. A solid starting point but to which we will have to add a value chain that ensures that the Spanish installation is one of the most competitive and green in the world.

Batteries will add much of the carbon footprint of future vehicles so, the more ecologically competitive the Spanish plant is, the more attractive its batteries will be for the rest of the world. The possibility of having raw materials from Extremaduran deposits, with significant generation of renewable energy, and good railway and maritime infrastructures ensure a great starting point for this future gigafactory.

The point at which the most work remains to be done will surely be the one that has to do with attracting talent. It will be fundamental that the industrial group that heads the project finds in Spanish educational centers the capacity to provide workers for this installation. Taking as a reference the more than 1,600 employees of 90 nationalities that currently make up the Northvolt team, this will undoubtedly be one of the great challenges of the Spanish project.

The start-up of the first large European battery gigafactory contains many lessons learned for the future Spanish project. In the best case, you will need three years and several billion so that the new plant can start producing components. A path that will start this year and that will open the door to a new era for the Spanish automotive industry as a whole.

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