European battery makers are gearing up to take advantage of massive “green” stimulus packages unveiled since the coronavirus pandemic, though many acknowledge it will be tough to match the Asian giants that dominate the mainstream market.
That is why some European companies are focusing on niche markets and new technologies rather than taking on Chinese and South Korean firms.
From Greek battery maker Sunlight to startups like InoBat Auto in Slovakia and Switzerland’s Innolith, firms say the challenge of building economies of scale fast to compete head-on means finding niches is a more likely path to success, for now.
“Having battery giants in Europe, it’s still possible,” said Sunlight Chief Executive Lampros Bisalas. “We just need to run and catch up and innovate faster than the others.”
Sunlight’s Greek factory is the world’s largest producer of lead-acid batteries for automated guided vehicles, forklifts and energy storage systems and it is now shifting to lithium cells.
But Bisalas isn’t going after the EV market dominated by China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), Japan’s Panasonic and South Korea’s LG Chem, Samsung SDI and SK Innovation. He’s focusing on lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) production, a type of battery suited to forklifts, locomotives and robots that perform short tasks with breaks in between.
“These markets are billions of dollars,” said Bisalas. “We see a very big opportunity there, because we see lithium ion producers, especially from China, being focused on EVs.”
Ever since it launched the European Battery Alliance in 2017, Europe has been pushing local firms to develop an industry that should flourish in a low-carbon future and ensure the continent is not reliant on imported products – or technology.
Now, China hosts 80% of the world’s lithium-ion cell production – the type of battery expected to power the fast-growing EV industry – and most of the capacity coming online in Europe over the next five years belongs to Asian firms.
InoBat Auto CEO Marian Bocek says the European auto industry’s reliance on imported mass-produced batteries has created a “technological sovereignty crisis,” forcing manufacturers to design cars around the batteries.