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Building sustainable battery giga factories

Peter Hodgkinson, Director for Strategic Growth and Major Projects: Property & Buildings, WSP in Africa

Battery giga factories have a critical role to play as more countries and industries embark on meeting net zero targets and transitioning to renewable energy sources. Access to more efficient, scalable, and environmentally sustainable battery manufacturing capabilities will assist stakeholders achieve these objectives faster.

The race for battery giga factories underscores the need for countries to rapidly acquire capabilities to maintain and grow their capacity. Three core markets are driving the growth of battery manufacturing – battery energy storage solutions (BESS); electric vehicles (EVs), and consumer electronics (think rechargeable appliances).

Battery manufacturing boom

Currently, there are 369 giga factories in the pipeline around the world to finish by 2030. Not too long ago this number was 115.

The global demand for batteries is expected to increase from 185 GWh in 2020 to over 2,000 GWH in 2030. Furthermore, the value of the worldwide lithium-ion battery market size is projected to top $193 billion by 2028 reflecting a 23.3% compound annual growth rate from 2021. This has proven to be the catalyst for the construction of sustainable and efficient battery giga factories.

According to research, investments in battery giga factories hit $131 billion in 2022, a 24% increase over the previous year. These were predominantly led by China. However, North America is catching up with its manufacturing capacity expanded by 49% in 2022, compared strongly to China’s 65% year-on-year increase.

Modifying existing facilities

From new builds to refurbing and converting previously used manufacturing facilities, or expanding existing traditional battery manufacturing facilities, to giga factories, securing these investments requires a holistic approach that encompasses construction, optimisation, power supply, site selection, feedstock sourcing, sales strategy, regulatory compliance and a sustainability lens.

Fortunately, existing facilities may be retrofitted to transform into battery giga factories through an integrated approach that looks to reuse as much of the existing buildings, services and equipment at the facility as possible, even though there might be limitations of the host building. It should be noted, however, that the plants themselves are technically complex, requiring deep knowledge in the new generation of gigafactories, as well as specialist expertise in clean and dry room design and implementation.

Minimising risk

In managing risks for retrofitting facilities into battery giga factories, thorough studies are essential. This includes geotechnical and environmental assessments, evaluating flood risks considering climate change, and checking for ground contamination. Identifying materials such as asbestos and conducting concrete integrity testing is critical to gauge the effects of age and chemicals.

A documentation search is also vital. This should encompass existing drawings, reverse engineering, and reviewing maintenance records by consulting with on-site personnel and third-party vendors. Ensuring safety for structural and civil aspects of the construction, as well as mechanical and electrical services, is important. Building Information Modelling (BIM) enhances upfront planning and coordination within the model space, which is fundamental in reducing risks and ensuring an efficient project timeline.

Improving the energy efficiency of an existing facility

A fundamental question to address is how to improve the energy efficiency of an existing factory. This is where developing sustainable battery giga factories requires a combination of international experience with local insights.

Working with the permitting and local authority on establishing site boundaries and zoning rights while also maintaining compliance with national and local regulations is vital. So too are recognising the environmental conditions of where the current facility is situated. For instance, the humidity, the climate, as well as the impact of climate change.

Decision-makers must be aware that the building typically accounts for less than one-third of construction CAPEX, while services and utilities constitute the majority. They must therefore understand the cost implications of alterations, which may make Greenfield projects potentially more cost-effective than Brownfield ones.

Enabling a sustainable future

Keeping circular economy principles in mind is vital to ensuring battery manufacturing plants support the project and business’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals. This includes looking at solutions to, for example, design out waste and pollution while keeping products and materials at their highest possible value, and regenerating natural systems. This helps to drive clean growth, preserve natural capital and reduce waste, achieve net zero goals, reduce cost and improve industrial resilience. Whether it’s new builds or retrofitting existing facilities to giga factories, the goal is to eliminate value leakage across the resource lifecycle, whilst creating industrial symbioses and regenerating natural capital.

Additionally, looking at the lifecycle of giga factories through a sustainability lens means targeting efficiencies not only the design and building of these facilities but also ensuring these facilities continue to operate as efficiently and sustainably as possible. Continuous monitoring and identifying opportunities to improve the lifecycle management of these factories supports these aims, and in the wake of evolving technologies and market demands.

Battery design, and therefore the design of battery giga factories, is a rapidly evolving industry. To truly drive industry growth, it’s essential to embrace innovation, future-readiness and prepare for the changing landscape. Ultimately, the emergence of battery giga factories will help the world embrace a more sustainable future while still meeting the demand for these precious commodities.

WSP in Africa is hiring! To find out more about available opportunities, check out the Careers page on our website or look out for updates on our LinkedIn page, @WSPinAfrica.