Workforce, funding, collaboration: EV Innovation & Technology Conference highlights promise, needs for Canada’s EV ecosystemNews
Feb 9, 2024
Mehanaz Yakub

Canada now ranks No. 1 in the world for EV battery supply chain potential. Attendees discussed what’s needed to turn that potential into reality

Electric Autonomy’s second annual EV Innovation & Technology Conference in Toronto attracted major Canadian and global companies and key industry figures — roughly 300 attendees — committed to advancing the country’s end-to-end supply chain for EVs. Photo: Electric Autonomy

Canada now ranks No. 1 in the world for EV battery supply chain potential. Attendees discussed what’s needed to turn that potential into reality

The scale of recent investment in Canada’s electric vehicle and battery supply chain is eclipsing all but the most optimistic expectations. But now an equally critical challenge is at hand: fully leveraging this opportunity to ensure Canada creates a resilient EV industry ecosystem.

This pivotal discussion point took centre stage at Electric Autonomy‘s second annual EV Innovation & Technology Conference in Toronto this week. The event attracted major Canadian and global companies and key industry figures — roughly 300 attendees — committed to advancing the country’s end-to-end supply chain for EVs.

Throughout the day, BloombergNEF’s new global lithium-ion battery supply chain ranking, released Feb. 5, was at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

For the first time, it placed Canada as No. 1 in the world, surpassing China, based on the country’s performance and potential in five categories: raw materials, battery manufacturing, downstream demand, environmental and social governance (ESG), and industry, infrastructure and innovation.

“The Bloomberg report is telling us Canada is on the right track but I think what we can really say is there’s a lot of work [to do] and that work needs to start now,” said Robert Mastrotto, vice-president, projects, at Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, one of the event’s more than two dozen featured panelists, presenters and moderators.

Collaboration is key

The list of marquee on-stage participants included vehicle and battery manufacturers Volkswagen/PowerCo, Northvolt, Electrovaya and General Motors as well as battery and vehicle component manufacturers such as Novonix, Linamar and Cyclic Materials. Academic institutions like the Dalhousie University’s Jeff Dahn Research Group and the University of Windsor’s CHARGE Lab, critical mineral project developers Dumont Nickel and Nouveau Monde Graphite, and industry associations such as Propulsion Québec, Accelerate, Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network, the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association and First Nations Major Projects Coalition were also present.

Each had key insights and expertise to contribute about the burgeoning EV ecosystem.

The sessions delved into various aspects of the supply chain, including advancements in critical minerals extraction, battery technology, advanced manufacturing, vehicle components, battery making and EV assembly.

Speakers highlighted current areas of challenges facing the industry. These included the need for more investment, especially in upstream mining and midstream innovation and technology projects, to help those enterprises scale up and enter the market successfully. The need for more talent and a workforce to support the growing ecosystem was also stressed.

Panel discussions throughout the day emphasized the urgent need for enhanced collaboration among the various stakeholders including government bodies, public and private companies, Indigenous communities, non-profit organizations and academic institutions to solve these challenges.

Fostering deeper partnerships and aligning strategies will create a resilient, inclusive, and prosperous Canadian EV and battery ecosystem for the future, agreed panelists.

Tackling the investment problem in mining

As BNEF’s ranking noted, one of Canada’s greatest areas of supply chain potential is in the mining sector, due to this country’s abundance of raw materials and critical minerals needed for EV battery production. However, speakers emphasized that the country could be in jeopardy of losing that edge if mining companies fail to secure the large capital investments needed to bring these mines online.

“We’ve seen some R&D dollars which is great, but there hasn’t been a big chunk of money coming upstream,” said Johnna Muinonen, president of Dumont Nickel, a large nickel and cobalt mining project, still in the pre-production phase, in Quebec.

The reasons for that are multifold. But most important, according to Alla Kolesnikova, head of data and analytics at Adamas Intelligence, are the many regulatory and product hurdles these projects face and a lack of “clarity” in navigating some of the processes. This creates a barrier for investors, leading to a “disinterest” in pursuing investment opportunities.

“I think for us, if we want Canadians to succeed here, it is important to have buy-in of all stakeholders,” said Kolesnikova. “By having this buy-in ‘corporation,’ we can provide an understanding of what is going to happen in each and every project, giving a little bit more insurance for investors to go back and invest in a mining project.”

This buy-in includes partnerships and collaboration between the planning communities, governments, clients that might be buying the end raw materials and Indigenous communities, said Kolesnikova. 

“Indigenous consent is part of that advantage and part of the formula to make a project successful. You’re really not going to get the financing through the regulatory processes that you need to without having proactive partnerships with Indigenous communities,” said Saga Williams, senior advisor, external relations, with First Nations Major Projects Coalition.

Fostering new and old relationships

Canada excels in generating innovations and technology, but where it stumbles is the midstream scaling up and commercializing of products. Several speakers stressed that this is a priority area to strengthen.

“It’s all about gaining that interest with the end user to then later devote to a scaled-up version of that material,” said Mark McArthur, director of research and development, at Novonix Battery Technology Solutions.

To bring new innovations to market, midstream companies rely on the support and collaboration of product end users. Forming and recognizing shared goals leads to the combining of resources, knowledge sharing and efforts to address scale-up challenges. However, the method of establishing these deeper relationships varies.

Established companies like Novonix leverage existing relationships to introduce new offerings to the market, such as its latest all-dry, zero-waste cathode production process.

But new companies require a different tack. Sean Grixti, director of circular partnerships at Cyclic Materials, a Kingston, Ont., rare earth recycling start-up, says Cyclic focuses on education and emphasizing the importance of recycling materials to generate interest and justify scale-up project

Tier 1 auto parts supplier Linamar’s current initiative to build and open a commercial gigacasting facility next year at a new plant in Welland, Ont., is another case in point.

The project is being driven by a contract with an area OEM to produce gigacast chassis to go into a new, yet-to-be-announced vehicle. Rick Borns, director of engineering in Linamar’s Structures Group, described its relationship with that OEM as true “simultaneous engineering.”

“It is a very, very collaborative working relationship with our automotive customer…because there is no plan B, if this doesn’t successfully launch on time the vehicle will not make it to market on time,” said Borns.

Industry and academics working in partnership

If Canada invests in expanding battery manufacturing, car part plants and gigafactories, a skilled workforce needs to follow.

To make sure that happens, Narayan Kar, director of CHARGE Lab and a Canada Research Chair in EVs at the University of Windsor, advocates for greater collaboration among industry, academia and government.

“Everything has to be done in a meaningful way so that our graduates can be employed by industry partners,” said Kar, adding that an effective collaboration involves integrating industry partners into the academic environment, allowing them to work closely with students. This will help prepare students to be potential employees for these companies.

However, many companies in the current supply chain require a talented workforce today to maintain their operations. NextStar Energy, for example, a joint venture between Stellantis and LG, made headlines for bringing engineers from South Korea to work on the early stages of development of its new EV battery plant in Windsor due to the lack of local expertise.

“[NextStar Energy] needs experts to get things going and we don’t have those experts here so that’s why it is very time-sensitive that we do something about it. This plant is built from taxpayers money, we would like to see that our people are getting hired there,” said Kar.

Kar suggested short-term solutions such as upskilling programs to supplement core courses with additional relevant ones. However, he stressed that long-term solutions such as more post-undergraduate programs are needed, too.

Such solutions are emerging. The day before the conference, Electric Autonomy exclusively reported that Dalhousie University plans to launch a new Master of Battery Technology program by fall 2025.

Speaking at the event, Michael Metzger, Herzberg-Dahn Chair for Advanced Battery Research at the Jeff Dahn Research Group, said the program “will hopefully” develop a crucial pool of Canadian talent that can join the workforce at a faster pace than they would for a Ph.D. program.

Forming strategic relationships

As the automotive industry continues its transition towards EVs, new relationships between vehicle manufacturers and battery suppliers are forming as well.

Northvolt, a Swedish battery manufacturing giant, is on track to build a new multi-billion-dollar battery cell factory in Quebec. Noteworthy investors in Northvolt include Volkswagen, which holds a 20 per cent stake in the company, and BMW.

“The relationship is completely strategic because [car makers] see [the battery] as a very critical component to cost efficiency,” said Luc Hovan, vice-president, integration & infrastructure, at Northvolt North America.

Echoing Hovan’s sentiments, Sarah Goldfeder, director of government relations and corporate affairs at GM Canada, elaborated on the nuances between how GM develops the different relationships with battery and parts suppliers, which, she added, are all still in “nascent” stages and “evolving.”

“We see a slight difference in every single agreement that we start entering into with different suppliers at different stages in the processing…There’s a level of proprietary IP there, that makes the vehicles competitive in the marketplace,” said Goldfeder.

“The relationships are very deep within all these different companies in the end. So it’s not just a sales relationship like it was in the past. It is a sitting down and figuring out what it is that you’re going to do that I’m going to then help you invest in and eventually purchase.”

Addressing Canada’s pivotal role in expanding its supply chain within the broader North American context, Goldfeder emphasized the need for a concerted, multi-stakeholder effort.

“How can Canada step up to the plate? There are questions there that need to be answered by the federal government, by the provincial government, by utilities, by the workforce, by the universities and by us companies. But it has to be a joint effort, we all have to work together on this and we have to see each other as trusted partners throughout it.”

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