We need to rethink how we train the next generation of battery engineers, Frank Gielen, Education Director at EIT InnoEnergy, writes in his thought piece for ICON.
In 2021, global electric vehicle sales were up 109 per cent on the previous year, with 2.3 million sold in Europe as the continent increases its share of the market. Europe’s growing appetite for e-mobility is great news for its ambitions as a sustainability leader.
However, the same cannot be said for its lithium-ion battery production capacity. In 2020, Europe accounted for just six per cent of global capacity, behind Asia on 85 per cent, and the US on 9 per cent. On top of that, there are growing markets for the likes of electromobility and residential storage and grid-scale storage which will also add significant demand to the equation.
In other words – despite significant successes – Europe’s demand for batteries has outpaced its ability to produce them and support surrounding supply chain infrastructure at the scale required.
Though global collaboration is needed to make progress in a rapidly advancing sector, without a sharp increase in manufacturing capacity, European companies could become dependent on imports, and European countries will miss out on a large segment of the battery value chain.
So, what can be done to deliver that sharp increase in manufacturing capacity?
- Build a European raw materials supply chain
- Expand the talent pool
However, while the former problem has attracted a lot of attention, activity in the latter avenue has been relatively low-key. Until now.
Four million jobs
Of course, Europe has not been sleeping on its battery challenges. In 2017, the European Commission launched the European Battery Alliance (EBA), which is tasked with establishing an innovative, sustainable, and globally competitive European battery value chain.
To date, the EBA has helped launch more than 111 major battery-related projects, including more than 20 giga factories either planned or already under construction, such as Sweden’s famous Northvolt, one of EIT InnoEnergy’s three unicorns that it has successfully supported as part of its sustainable innovation portfolio.
These projects are expected to create between three and four million direct and indirect jobs by 2025.
Traditional teaching methods such as postgraduate degrees and in-person, small-group training courses are unlikely to be sufficiently scalable to achieve what is required on their own. We need to rethink how we train the next generation of battery engineers.
Creating a well-informed, well-resourced skills strategy
This is where the European Battery Alliance (EBA) Academy comes in. As the knowledge and innovation community responsible for the industrial side of the EBA, EIT InnoEnergy launched the EBA Academy in 2021 as the flagship programme designed to reskill the European battery value chain.
The Academy aims to creating a true education and training ecosystem for interested businesses, leveraging the knowledge and experience of EIT InnoEnergy’s researchers, entrepreneurs, businesses, and thought leaders, plus key players from 18 different countries across Europe. There are already more than 30 digital courses and learning activities which have served 40,000 learners so far.
Crucially, the European Commission has recently awarded EIT InnoEnergy €10m in funding to develop, scale and operate the EBA Academy in order to help bridge the skills gap. With these resources in place, the Academy is ready to directly train and certify 100,000 workers in the short term, before working with member states to broaden access to 700,000 further workers across at least 15 countries.
In doing so, the EBA Academy will have created a strong industrial education backbone for the battery sector which can continue to deliver value well beyond 2025.
And of course, battery technology does not exist in isolation. Batteries are only one cornerstone technology in the broader energy transition and the European Green New Deal. Other sectors and value chains will have similar skills gaps to bridge and similar teaching and training challenges.
In this respect, the EBA Academy has the potential to have a far wider impact on sustainability progress by establishing a template for others to follow both in Europe and abroad. Ultimately, the EBA Academy is the starting point for a vision of a European Green Deal Academy, where all rapidly changing industrial value chains will be served with the same educational infrastructure blueprint.
There are many hurdles to overcome before the European battery value chain can deliver on its full potential and supercharge European prosperity and decarbonisation. New raw material supply chains must be created from scratch; new battery chemistries may be required; various policy and regulatory issues will need to be surmounted at both EU and national levels. However, none of these challenges will be solved without an appropriately driven, informed and skilled workforce.
As such, though it typically attracts less attention than more tangible supply-chain based issues, we can argue that the battery skills gap is the foundational challenge for the European battery value chain – so let’s get the workforce plugged in to rapid-charge education infrastructure.
Prof. Dr.ir. Gielen has extensive experience with R&D in the telecommunication and software technology sector as well as in raising venture capital, university-industry collaborative research and spin-off creation. He has held a number of technical and management positions in the software industry.
He was head of the EIT Digital Professional School with the ambition to lead the innovation of professional development and executive education for companies, organisations and individuals going through a digital transformation.
Since 2017 he has been the Education Director at InnoEnergy.
Today, he is also a professor of software technology entrepreneurship at the University of Ghent.