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Canada's emerging battery sector could support 250K jobs, finds report

Over the next seven years, Canada could become a battery "powerhouse," according to a new report.
Imperial Metals' Red Chris copper-gold mine in northwest B.C. An excellent electrical conductor, copper is commonly used in wiring and interconnections for batteries and electric chargers.

From mining critical minerals in British Columbia to manning battery mega-plants in Ontario and Quebec, an emerging battery sector for electric vehicles could support up to 250,000 direct jobs and bring $48 billion to the economy every year, a new report has found. 

In pure dollars, that's equivalent to roughly double the forest industry or 60 per cent of the contributions the oil and gas industry has made to Canada's Gross Domestic Product in recent years.

Half of the quarter million jobs would include converted workers currently employed in auto manufacturing in Canada. The other half are expected to be new roles in mining exploration and mineral extraction, in manufacturing and testing, or in an emerging battery recycling industry. 

But the 2030 estimate can only be realized with broad support from both provincial and federal governments, suggests modelling from Clean Energy Canada and the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing. 

Without enough government support, the report, titled ‘Canada’s new economic engine,’ found EV battery manufacturing would reach less than a quarter of its potential.

Clean Energy Canada’s Evan Pivnick said the country has all the right ingredients to become a “battery powerhouse” — from mineral resources to leading clean-tech companies.

“We have to get emissions out of our transportation sector. But for a lot of areas of the country, we’re also talking about new industries and new opportunities,” said Pivnick, the group’s clean energy program manager.

“But it’s vital that Canada acts swiftly and decisively, or it risks squandering thousands of jobs and billions of dollars.”

That support includes focusing on a half-dozen priorities, including creating a national strategy, building a workforce of skilled workers, growing the North American EV market, and scaling up domestic battery cell manufacturers.

If properly backed by government, the EV battery industry could lead to another 73,000 jobs in spin-off sectors like restaurants popular with employees, the report’s analysis found.

When reached for comment, Ministry of Natural Resources press secretary Keean Nembhard pointed to $3.8 billion in budget commitments his government made this year to scale up battery supply chains and support a “just transition” for workers.

The government's critical minerals strategy is meant to help everything from the discovery and development of battery metals, to refining and processing.

So far, Nembhard said the federal government has spent over $2 billion to secure $16 billion in private investments across EV manufacturing and battery production.

He added: “…Canada is already seen as an attractive place for investments in batteries.”

Canada holds big advantages for batteries

As demand for batteries goes up, more companies will need more of the minerals that go into them. The International Energy Agency projects a 30-fold increase in the demand for critical minerals used in batteries by 2040.

That's driven Canadian-based mining companies to pursue some unconventional methods, including vacuuming up deposits on the ocean floor.

Within Canada, the country is expected to have the third most competitive battery metals supply chain in the world by 2026, according to BloombergNEF, which tracks global commodity markets and low-carbon technologies.

It's not just an abundance of raw metals drawing battery manufacturers to Canada. Nearly 56 per cent of the country's power comes from hydroelectricity, and 83 per cent of its grid is non-emitting, making it an attractive place for battery investors looking to set up carbon-neutral operations.

Add to that its proximity to the U.S. and it was perhaps not surprising to see Stellantis and LG Energy Solution team up to invest over $5 billion into Canada’s first 'gigafactory’ earlier this year — a battery manufacturing plant in Windsor, Ont., that alone vaults the country nearly a third of the way to its 2030 potential, according to the report.

With the recent passing of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (at its heart a climate bill), all EV battery components sold in the U.S. must be produced in North America by 2029. 

As of mid-August, however, only three per cent of batteries met that criteria, according to S&P Global Mobility. Most of the world’s capacity to refine battery materials and manufacture battery cells (80 per cent) currently occurs in China.

To close that gap, Canada would need to attract investors to build one more major and two smaller battery cell facilities by the end of the decade. It would also need at least 21 mines feeding such facilities with metals like lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel.

Meanwhile, nearly all auto assembly capacity in Canada would need to go toward EVs, and EV sales in Canada would need to hit 90 per cent of all light-duty car sales by 2030 — beyond its current target of 60 per cent. In the U.S., that ratio would need to climb to 50 per cent.

“I would say we're potentially on track for that light-duty vehicle sale. I mean, what we've seen in the last year or two is just that constant ramping up,” Pivnick said.

Pointing to the 2030 potential, he added: “We protect those jobs in the auto sector, but then add tens of thousands of jobs in other areas where there just isn't that activity today.”

That includes battery recycling companies already looking to get off the ground in the Interior of British Columbia, battery technology companies in the Lower Mainland or mining operations across the province, said Pivnick.

Walking the line between new mines and avoiding local disaster

Ramping up mining across Canada does not come without risks. 

As mine tailings dams grow in size and number, an analysis released in July found building new ones could put thousands of lives at risk across British Columbia should they fail.

Tailings dams indefinitely store vast pools of waste left over from mining. They contain toxic heavy metals like selenium, and other toxins such as arsenic and cyanide. 

In B.C., public data suggests there are about 2.5 billion cubic metres of such liquid mine waste held back from pouring into watersheds and impacting communities. It’s a volume of waste that could fill BC Place stadium 943 times. 

“We're moving into a very scary future where tailings dams are getting riskier and riskier,” said international mining expert Steven Emerman, the report’s author, at the time.

Pivnick says Canada needs to accelerate the timelines for opening mines. But doing so without developing the highest environmental standards and engaging with First Nations would undermine any claims that Canada should be the place to produce “clean minerals” without leaving a trail of destruction in its path.

“Our opportunity is to produce some of the cleanest battery minerals and materials in the world,” he said.

So far, many of the images promoting a green energy revolution hold up solar panels and wind turbines as the future. But Pivnick says batteries are where the real economic opportunities are.

“Batteries really should be the poster child,” he said. “They're going to be backstopping our electrical grid… automobile manufacturers start to become battery and chemical manufacturers.”

“This is an inevitability. The question is only, how much of this share of global activity is here in our country?”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said there are about 2.5 million cubic metres of tailings waste stored across B.C. The volume, in fact, is 2.5 billion cubic metres.

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