The economic health of the Windsor-Essex region will be inextricably linked to the global growth of electric vehicles and the supporting industries and sectors that are expected to create thousands of jobs across North America.
From automobile assembly to production of hydrogen fuel cells and from developing charging infrastructure to battery manufacturing, this region has an opportunity to be a leader rather than a follower, according to Stephen MacKenzie, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Windsor Essex Economic Development Corporation.
“Windsor has been the leader in automobile production for well over 100 years and we have an opportunity to take a leadership role moving forward,” said MacKenzie. “We can’t go after everything that’s going to be happening in the future because we’re not big enough but if we’re strategic we can carve out a large portion of this sector.”
It’s expected that every global automaker will be producing electric vehicles throughout its portfolio including passenger cars, small, medium and large trucks, sport utility vehicles, cross-overs and possibly even marine vessels within the next 20 years, if not sooner.
Investing in the Future
On the investment front, General Motors recently announced it would be spending $35 billion on EV development through 2025 and Ford has said it will spend upwards of $28 billion over the same time period.
Stellantis, meanwhile, will be spending $1.5 billion retooling its Windsor Assembly Plant to build battery-electric or plug-in hybrids by 2024.
Given the auto industry’s past strategy of aligning itself with parts’ suppliers in clusters around assembly plants, this bodes well for the Canadian parts industry, including those in the Windsor area.
Mackenzie’s organization recently worked with P3 Group, a German consultancy firm, on developing a WE Can Green road map with a view towards taking a strategic step forward in cornering a portion of the multi-billion electric vehicle marketplace.
“Production of electric vehicles is where the industry is going and while some jobs will go away, many more will be created and this region needs to be ready,” said MacKenzie. “We have to be pro-active not reactive or we will be left behind.”
More than a dozen global e-mobility companies have already raised more than $10 billion in funding for development of e-drive-trains, trucks, upscale vehicles, buses, small consumer vehicles, batteries and SUVS and that money has be to invested somewhere.
“Why not here?” asks MacKenzie. “We need to look at the trends, look at the industry, look at our strengths and get started in chasing these opportunities.”
And matching demand with capacity from the electricity grid will be a large part of the future of the industry in this region.
In 2006, ENWIN Utilities peak daily loads averaged about 650 megawatts but that dropped to 470 megawatts in 2020 as a result of industrial sector slowdowns and conservation, according to Jim Brown, ENWIN’s Vice President of Hydro Operations.
“We have the capacity for the time being and we’re in better shape to weather increases than many other distributors across the province,” said Brown. “One of our challenges will be to determine where owners of electric vehicles are clustered so we can be sure to deliver enough capacity to those neighborhoods.”
“Our job will be to get the supply of power to individual customers,” adds Brown. “And we currently have the capacity, so for the time being, there’s not a lot more that we need to do until the prevalence of electric vehicles grows.”
Brown also believes charging parks will be instrumental in the growth of the EV sector because people passing through the region will need places to recharge their vehicles if they don’t live here and therefore cannot recharge their vehicles at home.
And developing fast-charge capabilities will also be a key so that charging will take as few as 10 minutes or about as long as it takes to gas up a non-electric vehicle.
“There aren’t a lot of electric vehicles in the marketplace right now and we expect demand will grow slowly,” added Brown. “It’s coming and we have to be ready.”
“We’re at the beginning of a whole new era of vehicle propulsion. It’s our number one industry and if it goes away, it’s never coming back.”
MacKenzie believes existing Windsor area companies have the technology, research, development and production capabilities to take on a large role in the development of mass-scale electric vehicles and supporting technology.
“We need to recognize where the gaps are and recruit companies to fill those gaps so that we can create an electric vehicle production and servicing cluster in the same way we have created a cluster of tool, die and mold shops to support our existing automobile industry,” adds MacKenzie.
If Windsor takes the lead in areas where it already has the expertise and aggressively recruits companies to support and augment those areas, there is no reason why the region cannot remain at the top or near the top of vehicle production in the 21st century.
And a large part of that will be providing infrastructure to support the electric vehicle sector.
The German consultants made a series of recommendations: focus on materials and production aspects of e-power-train development, focus on installation, build-up and operations parts of the industry, focus on production of green hydrogen and bundle all those aspects in the creation of an intermodal transportation hub.
Availability of charging stations will be critical in the development of a mass electric vehicle sector and as a major flow-through region for trucks and other vehicle traffic between Ontario and Michigan, this region is ideally located to become part of that sector as well.
“We need infrastructure to support this new industry and if companies can’t fuel or charge their vehicles here, they won’t come,” said MacKenzie.
Beyond battery development, the EV sector also needs to find ways to recycle those used batteries because many have a use beyond their vehicle life and this creates another opportunity for the region.
“We’re at the beginning of a whole new era of vehicle propulsion,” said MacKenzie. “It’s our number one industry and if it goes away, it’s never coming back.”