Experts make strong call for federal strategy to advance Canadian EV battery supply chain
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Jun 3, 2021
Emma Buchanan

Panelists speaking at the first of Electric Autonomy’s weekly discussion series cite benefits of regional collaboration and the economic security implications of falling further behind

Panelists speaking at the first of Electric Autonomy’s weekly discussion series cite benefits of regional collaboration and the economic security implications of falling further behind

This week, Electric Autonomy Canada hosted the first of a six-part national panel discussions on Canada’s national EV battery supply chain. Four leading experts provided sharp insights and even sharper commentary on the merits and challenges of establishing a national EV battery supply chain, and set a high bar for the five sessions to come.

Here’s a summary of key themes and comments. To view a recording of the entire event, click on the video player at the top of this page.

A Canadian strategy: why do we need one?

Canada is spoiled for advantages: technology, minerals, scientists, manufacturers and markets. Across nearly 10 million square kilometres, this country has all the ingredients needed to build out a leading global EV battery supply chain. It’s a recipe for success, but it will require cooperation, collaboration and a national commitment to excellence to get there — fast.

It’s important to act on EV battery development now, because without a national strategy Canada is “lagging behind [and] left in the dust,” said Daniel Breton, CEO of Electric Mobility Canada. “We have to act.”

So far, both Europe and Asia have created well-established battery supply chains. The United States, too, is making strides to set up its own.

“We’ve been really following the market in Europe quite closely. It’s been really exciting…to see the real emergence over the past several years of battery capacity,” said Ben Sharpe, senior researcher and Canada’s regional lead at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “One of the most important developments, I think, on this front has been the European Battery Alliance, which is a consortium of industry, government and academia. It’s set forth a really bold vision for Europe to be self sufficient in battery technology by 2025.”

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These markets, the panelists say, are possible “blueprints” for Canada. The theme around the world in places where a value chain has been successfully set up is that, largely, it’s come down to governments taking a strong stand to bring key stakeholders to the table. 

“There’s really no way around needing pretty substantial government investment to help abate some of the risk that’s involved,” said Sharpe. “You really can’t overstate the importance of having a really strong vision from the federal government set, in terms of overall dollar amount and just having an overall strategy and an action plan.” 

Battery alliances and geopolitics 

If Canada wants to be a factor in the global EV battery supply chain, it needs to harness and integrate the resources and talent found across the country into a cooperative whole.

“There’s definitely a great advantage to working together in Canada. Each province has something to offer,” said Sarah Houde, CEO of Propulsion Québec. In particular, Houde noted the importance of combining natural resources and technological expertise between provinces, creating jobs and integrating the existing supply chain with auto and vehicle manufacturers in places like Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. 

“We would really gain from working together. It’s a [matter] of first importance and it should be a priority for our government to invest in this endeavour.”

The group also noted that having complete or near-total control over its own battery supply chain would offer Canada some insulation from the ups and downs of geopolitics.

“As the resident U.S. citizen…the politics here can get a little squirrelly,” said Sharpe. “It’s important that Canada has the protections and uses really smart policy to set Canada up to not be solely dependent on the U.S.”

Keeping value at home 

Resource exports have long been a pillar of the Canadian economy. That fact, coupled with trading contracts and foreign ownership of Canadian mines, means a substantial amount of Canada’s current production of critical minerals ends up in China, Japan and the United States. It’s a situation that calls for new strategies, according to the panel, to preserve more of that production for processing in Canada.

There’s also a similar urgency when it comes to holding on to and capitalizing on Canada’s renowned battery talent and R&D resources.  

“All too often we’re doing the research, but we don’t end up owning the IP that is being generated,” Josh Nye, senior economist at RBC Economics said. “So that means that when we look at scaling these things up, we’re losing out on some of the benefits of that intellectual property.”

The panel cited the recent renewal of a deal between Tesla, leading researcher Jeff Dahn and Dalhousie University as an example of a regional success story. But even there, while the innovations that come out of Dahn’s lab are leading edge, many of the graduating scientists continue their careers in the U.S. or abroad. Such opportunities are one of the reasons Dahn’s lab is a big draw for international students, but the panel said it has to be a goal to see more of that Canada-trained IP incorporated into finished products that are made here rather than elsewhere.

Retaining control over raw materials and the act of turning innovations into products, said Nye, is where Canada could afford to plug a few leaky holes in an otherwise solid ship.

“We really have a lot more to do to capture [all] parts of this value chain,” Nye said, “And I really think that’s going to be the difference between, over the next 10 years, whether our auto sector … grows and thrives or whether we see some further retraction in there.”

Electric Autonomy’s next panel discussion on Canadian R&D and Innovation in Batteries will take place on June 9. You can register for the event here.

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