The $1.5-billion battery-materials plant near Kingston, Ont., planned by Belgium-based Umicore, could help establish an automotive ecosystem in a region of Ontario long overshadowed by industry strongholds elsewhere in the province, while further cementing Canada’s place in the North American electric-vehicle supply chain.
Ontario’s east gets spark from planned EV battery-materials plant
Leaders in Eastern Ontario see the region rising as a key link in the EV supply chain
Umicore CEO Mathias Miedreich, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other government officials were at Queen’s University in Kingston on July 13 to announce plans for the plant in Loyalist Township, nested within Lennox and Addington County.
“We’ve broken through that barrier of automotive coming to Eastern Ontario,” said Stephen Paul, director of community and development services for Lennox and Addington County.
“Now, I think people and investors and companies will see that the opportunities that exist east of Toronto are really strong, from land availability to skilled talent.”
The site in Taylor Kidd Industrial Park will cover two key steps in preparing metals for use in lithium-ion battery cells: blending inputs such as lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese into precursor cathode active materials (PCAM), and then converting the precursor to battery-ready cathode active materials (CAM).
Once at full capacity, the sprawling plant will be capable of producing CAM for up to one million EV batteries per year.
Current projections from AutoForecast Solutions, a U.S.-based forecasting company, show North America EV production at about five million vehicles per year by the end of the decade. The Umicore plant could supply cathode material for as many as 20 per cent of the EVs built in Canada, the United States and Mexico by 2029.
‘JUST THE BEGINNING’
Paul, whose economic development office spent 10 months spearheading the effort to secure the investment, said the plant is “just the beginning.” He expects to see both spinoff investments and renewed interest in Eastern Ontario as a destination for auto investment.
The industry has not bypassed the region entirely, but the sector’s pervasive presence along the Highway 401 corridor from Windsor, Ont., thins out eastward from General Motors’ Oshawa Assembly Plant. A few notable exceptions: Magna International Inc., which operates three plants in Belleville; Ventra Plastics in Peterborough; and CpK Interior Products, with facilities in Port Hope and Belleville.
But for companies scouting locations, there can be advantages to avoiding areas with a lot of industry already in place, said Vic Fedeli, Ontario’s minister of economic development, job creation and trade.
“They have to spread out to make sure that they have a good talent pool available to them,” Fedeli said. Ontario, with its “vast” territory dotted with universities and colleges to provide well-trained talent, offers ample opportunity beyond its traditional automotive hotbed in the southwest, he said.
The province took Umicore to a “menu” of possible sites across Ontario before the company opted for the Kingston area, Fedeli said. He would not say how many sites.
Miedreich cited the area’s talent pool as among the company’s chief reasons for selecting the site. He also pointed to wider-reaching priorities, such as Ontario’s clean-electricity grid and the availability of resources within Canada.
As Umicore plans for the new plant, scheduled to open by the end of 2025, it is already considering expansion. Aside from PCAM and CAM, the company is exploring further vertical integration through mineral refining and battery recycling at the 350-acre site (140 hectares), Miedreich said.
The Umicore plant would be the first site in Canada to produce PCAM and is among a select few in North America targeting CAM.
Canada is already well-positioned for production of the mix of materials that make up the positive end of a battery cell. On March 4, Germany-based chemical company BASF announced a battery-materials plant in Bécancour, Que. General Motors made a similar but unrelated announcement March 7.
The cost, availability and shovel-readiness of land are among the reasons the battery supply chain is skewing east, economic developers say. The Umicore project reinforces the importance of land preparedness, said Jay Amer, executive director of the Ontario East Economic Development Commission, which serves as a conduit between companies, the province and regional economic development agencies.
“Everybody’s got a field, but that doesn’t quite cut it,” Amer said. “The big challenge in our communities is getting elected officials to invest in having serviced land investmentand shovel-ready.”
For Umicore’s deal, Loyalist Township was prepared. The municipality owned the plot of land outright, which greatly simplified the acquisition, said Paul, the Lennox and Addington County official. The land was also already zoned for manufacturing and had the proper road and rail links.
STILL ACCESS TO U.S.
Paul expects companies to continue looking east for a ready supply of land that is “competitively priced” compared with the Greater Toronto Area and southwestern Ontario.
The region does present some challenges, particularly regarding proximity to the United States, but while it is farther from the traditional automotive heartland in the Midwest, Eastern Ontario still offers vital links south, Amer said.
“A lot of companies that come in [to Eastern Ontario], they want to get into the U.S. market, and they suddenly realize there are three uncongested border crossings [in the Kingston area],” he said. “It’s not Windsor, it’s not Buffalo or Fort Erie, and that’s one of our selling points.”
Like Paul, Amer expects a major change to the Eastern Ontario investment climate after Umicore’s announcement.
“I think of Toyota going into Woodstock [in 2009], and the world changed there,” he said. “Seeing the growth come in our direction is something we work with every day....This is going to be a project we’ll see a lot of benefits from, and success breeds success.”