Impact: The Energy Futures Lab Contributes to a Growing Battery Metals Industry

From Lithium on Tap to the Battery Metals Association of Canada

The EV Revolution

Every so often, humans stumble upon a resource that accelerates our progress in unimaginable ways. With the discovery of fire, we learned to illuminate the world around us, unearthing countless new opportunities. We learned to harness the wind and the sun, we made something of bitumen and natural gas. Each of these discoveries allowed us to move forward in leaps and bounds. But at the heart of progress lies an important reminder: the planet and those who inhabit it are ever-evolving. We continue to adapt in the face of new challenges, such as those emerging as a result of climate change. In recent years, rising greenhouse gas emissions have pushed us towards electrification at an unprecedented rate, inspiring us to diversify our relationships with a wide array of natural resources. 

In today’s world, lithium has emerged as a critical resource that will once again change the course of human history. The discovery of lithium (the lightest metal on the periodic table) isn’t new, but our relationship with lithium is quickly changing. Scientists began working on lithium-ion batteries in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the first commercial lithium-ion battery hit the market. Fast-forward thirty years and batteries are set to play an integral role in the transition to net-zero by midcentury. Thanks to a myriad of factors, including improved battery technology, policy support and a wider availability of charging infrastructure, electric vehicle (EV) sales are surging. In fact, EV sales rose by 43% in 2020. Consider the fact that overall vehicle sales dropped due to the global Covid-19 pandemic and this figure becomes all the more impressive. 

While lithium has made quite the splash as a poster child for battery technologies, there are many other critical metals and minerals required to support the transition and build out a domestic supply chain. In fact, the World Bank Group estimates “that over 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed to deploy wind, solar and geothermal power, as well as energy storage, required for achieving a below 2°C future.” Making sense of the complexities within our changing energy system, however, as well as the opportunities and challenges therein, is no easy task, but it was one the Energy Futures Lab came to embrace with curiosity and commitment. Thus, the story of the Energy Futures Lab’s contribution to an emerging battery metals sector is ultimately a story that speaks to the power of collaboration and social innovation. 

Lithium and a Unique Alberta Opportunity

In Alberta, where the Energy Futures Lab (the Lab) anchors much of its work, lithium-rich brines exist in the Devonian formations around Fox Creek, Leduc and Swan Hills. In 2017, few people knew about this untapped opportunity. It took individuals like Liz Lappin, who joined the Lab as a Fellow in February of 2017, to help spread the word. Liz was well aware of Alberta’s potential and eager to share these opportunities with the rest of the Lab’s Fellowship. She joined E3 Lithium (E3) during their start-up phase and proposed the launch of a collaborative initiative with the Lab to develop a lithium project in Alberta. An elegant solution to a long-standing challenge, E3 demonstrated how Alberta could lean on its existing oil and gas infrastructure to support the creation of a globally-competitive lithium industry. As “a lithium resource and technology company working towards the production of lithium products to power the growing electrical revolution,” E3 was looking for opportunities to build awareness and with Liz as a Fellow, E3 was granted a unique opportunity to connect into Alberta’s innovation ecosystem.

Since Canada’s reserves already include many of the raw materials required for lithium-ion batteries, such as graphite, cobalt, nickel and sulphur, the country is well positioned to contribute to this rapidly expanding market as a stable and secure source of low greenhouse gas raw materials. But as E3 pointed out, Alberta has more to offer than just energy. For example, many of Alberta’s oil and gas wells produce saline waters “dusted” with lithium. With concentrations between 50 and 140 parts per million, this source of lithium is low compared to global sources.  In Alberta, this lithium was discovered thanks to existing infrastructure built by the province’s long-established oil and gas industry, thereby saving lithium companies millions of dollars in exploration costs. “It [the lithium ion battery supply chain] will be built on the backbone of oil and gas, putting Albertans back to work and revitalizing legacy infrastructure,” a team of Energy Futures Lab Fellows described in an original project brief. “Lithium is just one example of a natural resource that can be added to Alberta’s energy mix to boost our resilience.”

“This is more than just about coming together. It’s about coming together with a purpose.” – Pong Leung, Energy Futures Lab Senior Advisor 

Wanting to build upon the Fellowship’s keen interest in E3’s work, the Energy Futures Lab began exploring how it could support these endeavors while simultaneously acknowledging that its role in the system was not as a start-up incubator. Instead, the Lab sought to support the industry more broadly. Through conversation and collaboration, they came to see an even bigger opportunity. Rather than support individual companies’ business development goals, the Energy Futures Lab would support this budding industry by bringing together key players from across the system, thereby tapping into the power of diverse expertise and perspectives, helping to establish credibility, weaving together a compelling narrative and demonstrating how a battery metals supply chain could contribute to an evolving energy system. 

With this in mind, they launched a new initiative: Lithium on Tap, a name coined by  Fellow Sean Collins. Exploring how Alberta might grow its own provincial lithium industry,  members of the fellowship led this initiative in the hopes of positioning Alberta as capable of meeting the domestic supply needed for the North American supply chain. 

“[The] whole idea of lithium, the development of a lithium industry from oilfield wastewater, [is] a great  example of what the lab was all about, in the sense of leveraging our existing assets from our legacy energy industry to set ourselves up for success in the future energy industry.” – Chad Park, Energy Futures Lab Founding Director 

Growing the Lithium Industry

With time, it became clear that the Fellows alone could not steward this work. Players from across the value chain needed to join the conversation, so in November of 2018, the Energy Futures Lab  hosted an accelerator workshop, Mobility in a Low-Carbon Future, to help advance these efforts. E-mobility was becoming a hot topic, defined by numerous streams of work connected into a highly complex and evolving system. As such, the 2018 workshop was multifaceted and worked to accelerate several Lab initiatives, including Lithium on Tap. Liz, alongside collaborators such as Amanda Hall, presented on the opportunity for Alberta to grow its own lithium industry, thereby capturing participants’ interest and imagination. 

The notion that this opportunity was bigger than any individual player became all the more clear during the workshop when the group coalesced around the idea “Energy Storage Association Creation in EFL” on a yellow sticky note under “Most Important + Needed Next Actions.” This signaled a significant challenge: as a nascent industry, there was an increased need for stakeholder engagement to support the creation of partnerships across the supply chain as well as a stronger, more united industry voice. In essence, attendees identified the need for a new industry association. Under “Strategic Partnerships,” they scribbled on pink sticky notes, highlighting other key players whose voices would need to contribute to the development of an Alberta lithium industry. These partnerships included mid to junior oil and gas companies, EV manufacturers, chemical companies, upstream partners and more. The hope was that by establishing an industry association home to such diverse players, the lithium industry could improve its credibility and attract investment. What came out of this workshop ultimately laid the foundation for the creation of the Canadian Lithium Association. 

“One of the things that I heard from a lot of people — not just in the lab, outside of the lab as well — was, you need to start an industry association; nobody knows about lithium, nobody knows that there’s so much in Alberta; that we have this big opportunity. You need to start something that helps you with amplifying that as a larger opportunity.” – Liz Lappin, Energy Futures Lab Fellow

The Canadian Lithium Association was founded by three companies: E3 Lithium, Prism Diversified and LiEP Energy. Together, these then junior lithium developers focused primarily on addressing the industry’s immediate needs. At the time, Liz sensed a tension emerging between the work of the Lab, which focused on the broader opportunity, and the work of this newly established industry association. “Our attention was focused on the major pressing issues,” she explained, reflecting on how members came together to discuss a number of shared challenges. A long-term vision would become important, but first, there was an even more immediate need to explore significant issues facing the lithium industry, such as regulatory barriers, a lack of public awareness, technological challenges or the inability to build out necessary infrastructure at a fast enough pace. 

In 2019 the idea of looking beyond lithium, to the broader battery market, began to crystalize and gain momentum. Jeff Bell, another of the Lab’s Fellows working for Alberta Economic Development and Trade, championed the industry, while simultaneously recognizing that lithium could be integrated into this broader value chain. With strong connections, Jeff played a critical role in bringing together key stakeholders from across the broader battery metals supply chain as part of a 2019 workshop: Alberta’s lithium-ion battery supply chain opportunities workshop. The workshop was the result of the collaboration and leadership of a number of Fellows who participated in both its design and delivery.

“This is an opportunity for the province. Every time I had a chance, I’d be like, ‘we should be thinking about battery metals,’ because that’s where the world’s going and we can play in that space.” – Jeff Bell, Energy Futures Lab Fellow

Capturing the Canadian Battery Metals Opportunity

In 2020, around the time that the pandemic hit, the Canadian Lithium Association underwent some leadership changes. The idea of expanding the association to include the broader battery metals supply chain had been steeping since the 2019 workshop,  and with the Canadian Lithium Association evolving, it became the perfect time to launch a rebrand. The foundation was laid for the Battery Metals Association of Canada (BMAC), which would ultimately allow for greater collaboration across a growing sector. 

During this growth period, the  Energy Futures Lab’s direct involvement waned, but its commitment to supporting the battery metals industry remained strong. While Fellows including Liz and Matt Beck worked with other BMAC board members off the sides of their desks to grow BMAC, the Energy Futures Lab continued to demonstrate its support through amplification and thoughtful storytelling. While much has changed in recent years, common anxieties and assumptions pervaded many of the early narratives defining the sector, including a fear that this new industry would threaten oil and gas, leading to lost jobs and economic instability. The Lab defied these assumptions, instead showcasing the numerous ways in which our “legacy assets” could be leveraged by drawing on existing workers, infrastructure and resources to enable the transition to a low-carbon economy. 

“That’s really important framing overall, because it helps avoid the us-against-them kind of framing: … clean energy versus dirty fossil fuels kind of thing. And that doesn’t really get us anywhere” – Chad Park, Energy Futures Lab Founding Director

Through publications including Five Big Ideas for Alberta’s Economic Recovery written by the Energy Futures Lab founding director, Chad Park and current Managing Director, Alison Cretney, as well as Alison and Liz’s article on How Alberta’s lithium-laced oil fields can fuel the electric vehicle revolution, the Lab helped legitimize the industry’s potential, integrating lithium into a “suite of energy transition solutions” that spoke to the interconnected potential for Alberta to both thrive and lead in the transition. With time and coordination, the Battery Metals Association of Canada found its footing, built on many of the learnings and connections arising from the Lab’s convening. 

As a national non-profit association, the Battery Metals Association of Canada connects industry players from across the supply chain and aims to ensure Canada “fully captures the abundant economic potential of its massive resources through the responsible and sustainable growth of Canada’s battery metals supply chain.” Bringing together industry leaders from across a broad, growing and new supply chain brings forth both opportunities and challenges. As a diversity of expertise and perspectives found space to collide, the need for a “unified industry voice” became all the more apparent. Without alignment, progress would be stalled. While it remains important for these key players to bring forth their own unique understandings of the industry, a shared vision would establish some common ground to allow an otherwise diverse group of leaders to advance and accelerate the industry’s growth. 

In the winter of 2020, Wendy Ell, who at the time was a Fellow joining from JWN Energy, helped get the ball rolling by assisting BMAC in securing sponsorship for a grant from Western Economic Development. The funds would be used to support the Lab’s work with BMAC, including workshops in 2021. By this point, the Energy Futures Lab had re-emerged as an important partner in this work, supporting BMAC in convening the industry to develop a shared vision. In October 2021, the Lab hosted a series of workshops to explore “A Bold, Transformative Vision for the Industry.” As a result of these collaborative sessions, BMAC landed a shared vision, allowing its members to begin moving forward together. In early 2022, they hosted another series of workshops, Building a National Battery Strategy, in which participants worked together to create a roadmap for the battery metals sector. 

“The EFL has played a major role in supporting BMAC to meet the needs of this emerging sector. We couldn’t have done this work at the pace we have without the Lab’s support.” – Liz Lappin, Energy Futures Lab Fellow 

While there is still much work to be done, the last five years have resulted in incredible progress. The Energy Futures Lab continues to champion this emerging industry, while bringing together a diversity of perspectives to explore how Alberta can leverage its assets to thrive in a net-zero future. 

Roadmap to Success

In 2020, when Bentley Allan, currently a Fellow with the Transition Accelerator, and Stewart Elgie from the Smart Prosperity Institute participated in a workshop together, they quickly found themselves speaking the same language. Their shared vision and interest in Canada’s battery metals supply chain led them to scope out a new and collaborative roadmapping project, later coined Canada’s Future in a Net-Zero World. To Bentley, a roadmap provides the foundation for a national strategy, so their work together focused on identifying key stepping stones that could help guide Canada in creating a successful battery metals industry. 

Meanwhile, David Hughes, CEO of The Natural Step Canada, introduced  Bentley to the Energy Futures Lab’s Managing Director, Alison Cretney. Shortly after, Bentley was invited to share his work to the Lab team in the fall of 2021. His talk was very well received, and as a result, Bentley was invited to offer a talk to the Creating a Bold Transformative Vision for Canada’s Battery Metals Industry workshop series hosted by BMAC and the Energy Futures Lab in October. 

“Usually I’ll receive one email and a few LinkedIn connections after my talks,” Bentley explained, “but this time, I received five emails from members of the audience and I thought ‘Oh that really struck a nerve with that particular audience.’” When he reached out to one participant asking for 30 minutes of their time, he was instead met by a strikingly positive and enthusiastic response. You can have 300 minutes if you need, they wrote, a response which arguably encapsulates the passion and buy-in from a wide range of industry leaders. 

In part, Bentley’s talk at the BMAC workshop resonated with the audience because BMAC had already identified the need for a federal strategy. In this sense, many of the workshop’s participants were already bought into Bentley’s roadmapping efforts on a conceptual level, and they viewed this work as a critical next step in establishing the industry’s supply chain. 

By the end of the first workshop series, BMAC had developed a shared vision. While this was indeed a step worth celebrating, bringing the vision to life would involve a lot of rigorous work. So when Bentley, along with  the Lab’s Juli Rohl and Pong Leung, approached Liz Lappin and described an opportunity to backcast from the recently created vision, the foundation was laid for yet another set of workshops to be hosted in January. 

“The industry’s top level leadership was engaged and understood the need for a federal strategy” –  Bentley Allen. 

Between fall of 2021 and January, work moved quickly. Bentley began meeting with technical experts, mostly CTOs and CEOs, to develop a working version of the roadmap, meanwhile, Juli and Pong focused on laying the groundwork for the second workshop series titled  Goals and Priority Actions and Going Forward Together.

Everyone was working on a short timeline, which was unusual as this kind of roadmapping exercise would typically take upwards of four or five months to complete. These efforts, however, were tremendously accelerated by a desire to engage the Government of Canada in early 2022. So by January, Bentley had managed to craft a “straw dog” of sorts, which he shared with workshop participants who helped refine and assess the roadmap.

“There’s a huge demand for this work,” Bentley said, which reinforced the team’s desire to speak with both leaders at the federal and provincial levels. The roadmap, which will be delivered in the form of a report, is therefore a timely contribution to a growing industry. 


Driving Forward

By bringing together diverse players in the industry, the Energy Futures Lab was able to facilitate conversations and connections which played an important role in the genesis of what evolved to be the Battery Metals Association of Canada. 

In the spirit of collaboration, BMAC and the Energy Futures Lab believe that through cross-sectoral efforts, Canada can capture significant value along the entire electric vehicle supply chain. Through a series of workshops the seeds of a pan-Canadian approach were sown, the fruits of which are now being materialized in the development of a national strategy  to capitalize on regional strengths and align industries. There is a compelling value proposition for the battery metals industry that integrates seamlessly into existing Canadian markets with a growing value-chain industry ecosystem already in place, and efforts are underway to ensure that battery metals will be “ a significant contributor to Canada’s prosperity and the global energy transition” as per BMAC’s shared vision.

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Alberta Energy Regulator. Critical Minerals in Alberta
Brown, Michael. U of A spinoff company could help unlock a lithium industry for Alberta. University of Alberta Folio, 25 May 2021.