Electrification in the UK is world-leading, particularly as this country was the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050. There are large sectors looking at it as a way of battling the economic challenges that the country faces, automotive, aerospace and energy being three relevant examples. Electrification has been on the agenda for some time and the current pandemic will accelerate it. Supply chain developments in the UK must become larger, more efficient and cost-effective.
The North East has a long history of electrification: electrifying trams in the 1920s, developing EVs in the 1950s and, more recently, Nissan began producing Europe’s most successful battery electric vehicle, the LEAF, and Europe’s first battery gigafactory also located to the region.
The Government is committed to making the UK a global leader in designing, producing and using ultra-low emission vehicles – spending £1 billion to date into ultra-low emission vehicles and committing £246m more over 4 years in the design, development and manufacture of batteries for vehicle electrification.
Due to the region’s experience of electrification and the fact that we have the materials and supply chains that automotive businesses need, we’re already way ahead of many other regions in the UK when it comes to vehicle electrification. Over the last 12 months, there has been a further £3.85bn of investment into electrification in the region including BritishVolt, Turntide Technologies and Nissan/Envision AESC.
To support the growth of the electrification sector in the North East, an organisation called EV North has been established. Its role is to strengthen the North East’s manufacturing and research activity in electrified powertrain components and systems, and to work with organisations like Invest North East England to attract new electrification businesses and investment to the region.
EV North has three key priorities: to promote the North East as a key global centre for manufacture and development of electrification technologies; to encourage collaborative projects to leverage public and private sector investment; and to attract investment to the region to support building and scale-up of manufacturing, research and development excellence for electrified powertrain components
The region’s five universities each offer a wealth of expertise and research capability to support the sector. Newcastle University for instance, is home to the Advanced Propulsion Centre UK (APC) which aims to position the UK as a centre of excellence for low carbon propulsion development and production. The APC team brings together and supports those who have good ideas in the form of innovative technologies with those who can bring them to market as products.
As the Electric Machines Spoke, Newcastle University acts as the focal point for electric machines development in the automotive sector. It brings together the academic and industrial communities in order to set the agenda for future collaborative research.
The University is also leading on the UK Driving the Electric Revolution programme, demonstrating the region’s commitment to R&D which has really helped the EV and electrification sector flourish. This UK-wide project provides a national network of four cutting-edge centres to enable faster collaborative research and development of electric machines – including cars, planes and ships.
The Driving the Electric Revolution Centres (DER Centres) are backed by £30m Government funding and will provide open access facilities with state-of-the-art equipment, bringing together the UK’s technology and manufacturing expertise in electrification research and development.
The network will help propel UK manufacturing to the forefront of global efforts to tackle climate change by accelerating the UK’s ability to deliver- next-generation electric vehicles, hybrid aircraft, energy generation, smart grids, industrial drives, consumer products, low-carbon off-highway for construction and agriculture, low-carbon maritime and rail activities.
To support the growing electrification sector in the region, the North East Automotive Alliance has also launched The Electrified Powertrain Technology Group to capitalise on the mega-trend within the automotive industry of powertrain electrification. Set up by members of the Alliance, the Group provides an opportunity to promote the region as an innovative and forward-thinking environment and to also leverage collaborative working.
In terms of employment, Nissan in Sunderland is arguably one of the UK’s biggest automotive success stories, and the company is leading the way when it comes to innovations in electric vehicles. As well as producing Europe’s most successful electric vehicle, the Nissan LEAF, Nissan also opened Europe’s first electric battery gigafactory in Sunderland in 2010.
To build on its current success and cement its position as an industry leader in electrification, in July this year Nissan announced it and its partners Envision would invest £1bn in Sunderland to create Nissan 36Zero – a flagship electric vehicle hub and a world-first EV manufacturing ecosystem.
The company will produce a new-generation, all-electric vehicle in Sunderland, creating over 900 direct jobs and more than 4,500 in the wider automotive supply chain. A second Envision-AESC gigafactory on the International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP) in Sunderland / South Tyneside will create 750 jobs and safeguard 300 existing roles. And to support Nissan’s expansion in electrification and clean energy, Sunderland City Council is aiming to deliver a one hundred per cent renewable electricity ‘Microgrid’ to power Nissan 36Zero – saving 55,000 tonnes of carbon annually.
Britishvolt’s announcement that it had secured planning permission to build its first full-scale lithium-ion Gigaplant facility in Northumberland was also a major coup for the region. Creating 3,000 direct highly-skilled jobs, and another 5,000-plus in the supply chain, the £2.6 billion factory will eventually produce cells for around 300,000 electric vehicle battery packs per year. The project will be built in three phases, each of 10GWh to a total capacity of 30GWh by 2027-onwards.
As electric vehicles market continues to grow, so does the advances in technology used to power them. Lithium-ion batteries used in most of the current generation of electric cars have limitations including being expensive and insufficient power storage for the needs of many drivers, requiring frequent top-ups. To overcome these issues, developers are now looking at graphene technology, the strongest material ever developed – 200 times stronger than steel and tougher than a diamond, which can extend electric vehicle power storage and reduce the frequency of charging.
Graphene is also the world’s thinnest material, flexible and transparent and the best heat and electricity conductor. Therefore, graphene has certain characteristics that make it ideal to be used in conjunction with a lithium-ion battery such as that used by Nissan’s Leaf and other electric vehicles.
The North East already hosts a major player in graphene production and manufacturing. Based on Teesside, Applied Graphene Materials (previously Durham Graphene Science) was established in 2010 as a spin-off from Durham University to develop a new graphene synthesis method and produce graphene materials.
Thomas Swan’s Advanced Materials division, based in Consett, is also a global leader and innovator in the R&D and manufacturing of graphene and other 2D-nanomaterials. The company has the ability to manufacture 20-40 tonnes of high-quality, bulk graphene products, and with creative solutions it can integrate its nanomaterials into customers’ wide-ranging applications from nanocomposites to concrete, lubricants and batteries. Following on from its success, the manufacturer recently announced a joint venture with Canadian based Mason Graphite Inc to launch a new company, Black Swan Graphene (BSG), which aims to establish a large-scale commercial production facility in Québec.
US sustainable technology company, Turntide Technologies – backed by Microsoft founder, Bill Gates – is the latest low carbon-focused business to invest in the region. Earlier this year, it acquired three North East businesses as part of its expansion into the commercial transportation industry, where it aims to be a one-stop powertrain platform provider.
The company’s endorsement of North East England has driven a huge spike in enquires from other companies working in the electrification sector, and those looking to enter the market.
The UK’s rail sector is also benefitting from the advances in electrification technology. Hitachi Rail based in County Durham and engineering company Hyperdrive Innovation in Sunderland recently signed an agreement to help accelerate the electrification of the UK’s rail fleet.
The two manufacturers are working together to develop battery packs that can be mass-produced to provide zero-emission power for trains across the UK.
Currently, only 42% of the UK’s rail network is electrified, and with the government continuing to outline ambitious decarbonisation targets, Hitachi Rail has estimated that there is a potential for new battery technology to power over 400 trains.
Battery-powered trains produce no greenhouse gases or air pollution and they are much quieter. Installing batteries on to existing fleets can also extend the range of the trains, allowing passengers to reach stations without having to change train.
To develop these batteries, the two companies are creating a new battery hub in the North East of England. According to the manufacturers, widespread adoption of this technology could provide a major boost for UK industry and could double the number of jobs in this sector.
Durham based Vivarail, is another success story in the electrification sector. The manufacturer of eco-friendly passenger trains, has accelerated expansion of its site in County Durham and turned it into its national research and development centre, creating new jobs in the process.
The Seaham site was also the chosen location to assemble power units, using batteries or drawing on electricity from a third line or overhead cable. Management was so impressed with the calibre of recruits in the North East that the team now also works on the complex electrical wiring that forms the nerve system of the new train and air conditioning units and the plan is to use it as the location to refurbish train bogies. The company has committed to investing up to £100,000 at Seaham and has been supported by £640,000 of grant funding awarded by Innovate UK.
Elmtronics based in Consett is the UK’s leading electric car charging company and the largest electric vehicle installer of charging points in the country. The business, which recently received funding through the County Durham Growth Fund, specialises in electric car-charging points for homes, businesses and the public sector, working with some of the UK’s largest councils, NHS trusts and private companies to design, install and maintain electric vehicle charging stations.
By securing a 15% share of the EV fleet and business charging market, Elmtronics has quickly established itself as a leading provider of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Caterpillar, which has a site in Peterlee, is also working on a range of cutting-edge technologies for off-road vehicles. From fully electric products to hybrid technology to diesel-electric systems, the company launching its new concepts to the market including a dozer featuring a diesel-electric power train that delivers up to 30% better fuel efficiency, electric drive trucks and Electo-Motive locomotives. It has also created a marine hybrid propulsion system delivering full diesel-mechanical power in work mode, then switches to more efficient diesel-electric operation for less-demanding applications.
Another County Durham business, GT Emissions Systems, part of the GT Group, is at the forefront of the design, validation and manufacture of exhaust gas control valves for on and off highway vehicles, and is also considering the possibility of producing electric trucks in order to meet customer demand. This is in anticipation of a global regulation to curb pollution from trucks and see advantages from lower fuel and maintenance costs of electric vehicles.
Reasons to Invest
- 9.6% of all students studying engineering and technology-related subjects – the highest proportion of any UK region
- £3.85bn electrification investment announced in the region since 2020
- 17 out of 21 of the region’s R&D centres focus on electrification
- 46,000 Nissan LEAF cars were produced in the region in 2019 – 20% of Europe’s BEV
- Only region in the UK with P, E, M & D capabilities
- UK’s biggest automotive power electronics manufacturing plant
- Home to Europe’s first battery production facility
- Home to Europe and UK’s biggest Giga factory
- 2 additional battery facilities announced in 2021 – 60 GWh capacity
North East Electrification Companies
- Turntide Technologies
- Peak Resources
- Mitsubishi Chemicals
- AVID Technology
- BorgWarner Gateshead
Skills and Talent
The North East is very attractive to inward investors in the energy sector due to the large existing talent pool and lower competition for skilled staff entering the workforce. With high quality and low cost of living the North East is attractive to professionals to stay and relocate to the region. The region also has the highest percentage of students in England (65.8%) that study in their home region, making it easier to recruit and retain staff.
As a percentage of the working age population, the North East has the second highest proportion of students in engineering and technology in the UK (0.56%), followed by Yorkshire and the Humber (0.49%) and East Midlands (0.48%). Over half of those were in mechanical engineering or electronic and electric engineering.
The region also has one of the highest number of university STEM students in the UK relative to the total number of students; 52,000 (50%) of students in the North East study STEM subjects.
The five North East universities offer more than 100 undergraduate and postgraduate courses related to engineering and technology.
North East colleges award vocational qualifications to over 130,000 students each academic year. As a percentage of the working age population, the North East has more vocational students than any other UK region – almost double the ratio than the East of England.
Academic institutions and industry leaders in the region understand the important of vocational education to support key sectors and have collaborated on a number of projects including the Skills Academy for Sustainable Manufacturing and Innovation (SASMI) at Gateshead College.
New College Durham recently launched the North East Institute of Technology (IoT), one of only 12 in the country. The College developed the proposal with key regional employers, including Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) and Esh Group and the project is also being supported by partner colleges in the region and local businesses. As an IoT, New College Durham will specialise in delivering higher technical education (at Level 4 and 5) with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, such as engineering, digital and construction. The college will provide students with a clear route to technical employment, and employers with a skilled workforce.
The North East is one of the lowest cost locations in the UK to recruit staff. The typical cost saving for an automotive engineer is over 30% compared to Greater London and around 4% compared to the West Midlands. For a technology Engineering Specialist, the typical cost saving is 5% compared to Derby and 9% compared to York.
The North East also has among the lowest property costs in Europe. Office costs are over 20% lower than in the South West and over 80% than in Greater London. While industrial costs are over 25% cheaper than the South West and only one-quarter the cost of London.
The annual operating cost for a 700-person OEM manufacturing operation in the North East is GBP 18.73 million, which is a £10.3 million cost saving per annum compared to London, £0.5 million saving compared to the West Midlands, and a significant cost saving compared to other UK and global locations.
The North East is one of the least expensive locations to establish a transport technologies R&D centre based on annual operating costs of a 40-person facility with grade A office and industrial space. The region offers £0.46 million compared to Birmingham and £0.27 million compared to York.
Business Incentives and Support for the Sector
Finance Durham Fund is a £20 million investment fund established by Durham County Council in 2017 with an aim to support business growth & job creation in County Durham. The fund has an economic development focus with emphasis on developing high growth SMEs. Managed by Maven Capital
Digital Drive Durham
A fully funded programme of business support, which also includes grant funding to help SME’s to improve & grow digitally. Grants of up to 40% are available for digital projects. Delivered by UMi (on behalf of Business Durham).
County Durham Growth Fund
A £8.9 million programme of investment. The fund offers capital grant funding to support SME’s looking to expand or establish new operations in County Durham. Delivered by UMi (on behalf of Business Durham).
Additional sources of funding
Available through various organisations and support programmes like NBSL, RTC North, BEEP, NE BIC, Business Boost.
Research and Innovation
17 out of 21 of the region’s R&D centres focus on electrification:
- Transport Operations Research Group (TORG)
- Durham Energy Institute (DEI)
- Automotive & Manufacturing Advanced Practice (AMAP)
- Business Analysis Systems & Supply Chain Management Group
- Skills Academy for Automotive, Engineering, Manufacturing and Logistics
- Skills Academy for Sustainable Manufacturing and Innovation (SASMI)
The region is a global centre for process innovation in the field of advanced engineering, with efficient processes developed in plants in the NE being rolled out to sister facilities globally (testament to the local skilled workforce)
The UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) was established to bring together a powerful collaboration between academia and industry and to create centres of excellence in digital rail systems, rolling stock and infrastructure. The overall aim is to provide a step-change in innovation in the sector and accelerate new technologies and products from research into market applications globally.
The Centre of Excellence in Rolling Stock (CERS) aims to meet the current and future demands of the GB rail industry for research and innovation to support the next generation of railway vehicles. The Centre combines and builds on the expertise of five leading railway research universities in the UK including the Design Unit at Newcastle University.
- Jade Business Park
- Aycliffe Business Park
- Forrest Park
- Merchant Park
- Peterlee Business Park