The first plant producing batteries for electric cars in France is inaugurated this Tuesday in Billy-Berclau (Pas-de-Calais). This is a key step towards an industrial metamorphosis aimed at catching up with Chinese manufacturers.
The Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, is expected alongside the Minister of Energy Transition, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, the Minister of Industry, Roland Lescure, and Italian and German officials. The CEOs of Mercedes, Stellantis and TotalEnergies (a few days after the group's stormy general meeting) will also be present for the inauguration with great fanfare of this "gigafactory" with indeed gigantic dimensions: 640 m long and 100 m wide.
"This is the first time in decades that we France recreate an industrial sector from almost nothing," says the Ministry of Economy and Finance. The plant of Automotive CellS company (ACC), a joint venture of Stellantis, Total and Mercedes, is "the first visible brick". Huge connected machines will flatten, cut, stack aluminum sheets coated with a paste of rare minerals, the base of these battery cells, which will then be assembled and filled with electrolyte by workers in white coats in immaculate rooms. Production is scheduled to start in the summer and commercialization at the end of 2023.
The "Valley of the Battery"
The moment is solemn because it symbolizes the forced shift of the automotive sector towards electrification, with the help of public aid, to prepare for the ban on combustion engines in the European Union from 2035. The ACC group, which sees itself as an "Airbus of the battery", will be one of the first to produce in Europe. It will be followed by four other battery factories in France, all located in Hauts-de-France, where an ecosystem that elected officials and industrialists have named "Battery Valley" is emerging.
The Sino-Japanese group AESC-Envision, near Douai (North), intends to supply Renault Electricity from early 2025. The Grenoble start-up Verkor will produce from mid-2025 in Dunkirk. And the Taiwanese group ProLogium is targeting a start of production at the end of 2026 for its first factory abroad.
In total, about fifty projects of this type have been announced at European level in recent years. The stakes are high: not to leave Europe at the mercy of Asian suppliers, and particularly Chinese ones, who are 10 to 20 years ahead in this field.
The problem of materials and uses
The French government has set itself the goal of producing France two million electric vehicles per year by 2030, says Bercy, the headquarters of the Ministry of the Economy. He estimates that ACC alone should produce enough to equip 500,000 vehicles each year. The France aims to provide its automotive industry with enough batteries assembled in the country by 2027. The objective would even be to export French batteries later. But it remains handicapped by the price of its energy, compared to China or the United States, which massively subsidize this industry.
As a sign of public support, of the seven billion euros of investments represented by the various ACC sites (in addition to its factory in Billy-Berclau, a research center in Charente, and two future plants planned in Germany and Italy), the group has received more than 1.2 billion euros in public funds, including 845 million euros in French aid.
However, two obstacles stand in the way of this attempt at French and European industrialization. The lithium-ion technology used on ACC's first line remains hungry for strategic metals whose supply chain is largely dominated by China with lithium, nickel or manganese. The transition also represents a major social challenge with the announced disappearance of tens of thousands of jobs according to unions and employers' organizations, while the Valley of the Battery must recruit and train more than 20,000 people in a few years. The CGT of the Stellantis site in Douvrin, neighbor of ACC and doomed to closure, has also planned to demonstrate this Tuesday against the "social breakdown" related to electrification.