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The Chinese-owned battery maker AESC is set to play a key role in Tata’s UK battery factory, despite the best efforts of the Indian company and ministers not to disclose its involvement.
Tata last month pledged to spend £4bn on a UK plant that will provide batteries for Jaguar Land Rover’s electric cars.
At the time of the announcement, Tata refused to confirm that AESC, a battery maker previously called Envision AESC and which is owned by Chinese energy giant Envision, was involved with the project.
Ministers have not verified the involvement of the Chinese-backed battery group. Asked last month whether the Chinese company was involved, prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “That’s a question for Tata rather than me.”
Many of Sunak’s MPs are hostile to China, so any suggestion that some of the £500mn of state aid and other incentives offered to Tata to build the gigafactory might end up going to a Chinese company would be politically sensitive.
When the new Somerset battery factory was announced last month, Tata said that “Agratas, Tata Sons’ new global battery business, will design, develop and manufacture batteries at the new gigafactory.”
Asked about a possible role for Envision at the time, Tata said: “We will not be disclosing ongoing discussions regarding the gigafactory.”
But five people with direct knowledge of the arrangements say that Envision’s AESC business is deeply involved.
The company will supply the technology for the first generation of batteries that are due to be manufactured at the site, according to two people with direct knowledge.
Tata’s Agratas business is aiming to develop in-house technology to use in the future, though this work is still at an early stage, the people said.
Envision’s AESC is also set to provide batteries for electric Jaguar models from 2025, according to three people with direct knowledge. These are likely to come from the AESC battery factory in Sunderland, which is linked to Nissan’s neighbouring car facility.
The Sunderland arrangement will help fill the gap in battery supply while Tata builds its gigafactory, which is expected to come online in the second half of the decade.
Tata, JLR, AESC and Agratas declined to comment.
AESC was formerly owned by Japanese carmaker Nissan, which in 2018 sold the business to Chinese energy group Envision.
Both JLR and Tata have been reluctant to confirm AESC’s involvement. Last month, JLR chief executive Adrian Mardell said contracts “had been signed” to supply JLR’s batteries before the Tata plant comes online, but added it was “not natural” to name those suppliers. When asked whether Envision was involved with the Tata plant, he said: “I am in no position to talk about Agratas.”
Kemi Badenoch, business secretary, in June welcomed the role played by Envision in Sunderland but warned that the UK must not become “overly reliant” on Chinese battery technology.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, said Britain risked becoming “even more dependent on China”. He said “China has many, many battery factories and they are going to swamp us with cheap electric cars” as a UK phaseout of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars approaches in 2030.