Britain must hold its nose and roll out the red carpet for Elon Musk

A battery factory building program is essential. China may have an unenviable reputation for trashing the planet in the single-minded pursuit of economic growth, but it has quickly achieved supremacy in the global battery arms race.

Continental Europe is on course to have 27 gigafactories by the end of the decade, a sixfold increase on forecasts made just three years ago. With planned annual capacity of nearly 800GWh, it will be enough to power 15m pure electric vehicles.

Number one spot goes to Germany, which has bent over backwards to ensure that Musk builds his first European plant south-east of Berlin. The state of Brandenburg allowed Tesla to fell 170 hectares of forest providing that the company replaced every single tree that was cut down with three new saplings. Giga-Berlin will be the world’s second largest lithium ion battery plant behind its counterpart in Austin, Texas.

Ministers should embark on their own charm offensive to ensure that Brexit Britain is next on Musk’s list. As things stand, our capabilities amount to just a single Chinese-owned plant producing batteries for the Nissan Leaf model, which is built next door.

It is a statistic that should embarrass this Government when Boris Johnson talks breezily about leading a “green industrial revolution” and building a 21st century, net zero economy.

Nissan has plans for a big expansion that will turn the Sunderland plant into one of Europe’s largest, and start-up Britishvolt has pledged to build another near Blyth in Northumberland, though it is yet to secure full funding. That is the extent of our capabilities.

Industry executives think eight more are needed to maintain current UK car production of 1.5m vehicles a year if all models become electric, while the Faraday Institution estimates that we need at least 10.

Whatever the true figure, a partnership with Musk is our best bet to catch up. If Britain is serious about electric cars, it needs him to invest here. Tax breaks and guarantees of smooth trade with the EU are vital. Red tape needs to be turned up.

He is a chaotic figure and comes with an elastic sense of propriety, but this is a once in many generation chance to participate in a genuine industrial revolution.

The car industry will have to undergo massive consolidation in the coming years as it struggles with the scale of structural change and Tesla is in pole position to emerge as one of the survivors. The UK should hold its nose and roll out the red carpet.


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