Amid opposition, Northvolt forging ahead to open Quebec battery factory by 2026

MONTREAL — Swedish manufacturer Northvolt says it’s forging ahead with plans to open an electrial vehicle battery megaplant near Montreal by 2026, despite a tight timeline and opposition from environmental groups. 

The company’s North American CEO said today that the company still has to get about a dozen different authorizations to complete construction on the project, including permits to erect its buildings and to draw water from the Richelieu River and discharge it.

Paolo Cerruti told reporters in Montreal there’s a risk that comes with investing billions in a project without all the permits, but the company has faith in the technology it’s trying to build.

Cerruti said he has been surprised by the public criticism of the project, including by an environmental group that unsuccessfully went to court seeking to halt construction. 

But he said the project is a marathon and not a sprint, and that the company is committed to remaining in Quebec for many years. 

Cerruti said Northvolt has finished cutting trees on one portion of its site that straddles the communities of McMasterville and St-Basile-le-Grand, and is planning in the short term to develop roads and temporary stormwater drainage systems on the 170-hectare property southeast of Montreal.

Northvolt also plans to submit the documents for the portions of its project that are subject to an environmental assessment by the province’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement — or BAPE — by the end of the year, and will eventually make them public.

Since it was announced in September 2023, the project has faced opposition from environmental groups and the Mohawk community, who say the company is being built on environmentally sensitive land without being subjected to a proper environmental assessment process, including full public consultations under the BAPE.

In January, Northvolt had to briefly suspend work when an environmental group and several citizens went to Superior Court to try to halt construction that they argued would destroy a number of wetlands. The injunction request was denied.

Also in January, nails or metal bars were inserted into about 100 trees by anonymous saboteurs allegedly hoping to slow down tree-cutting on the site.

Cerruti said Wednesday that he wasn’t expecting his company to be accused of disrespecting the environment. “This company exists because we felt the urgency to do something for the environment and respond to the climate emergency,” he said. 

The company acknowledged Wednesday that its timeline for construction is tight, and it will have to “do it quick and do it well” to start production in 2026.

The company is hoping to use water from the Richelieu River, which is home to the endangered copper redhorse fish, to cool its equipment. If it can’t get permission, Northvolt officials said there were other options, including cooling towers, although that isn’t a permanent solution. 

In the short term, the company is planning to temporarily have 350 to 450 trucks per day coming and going from the site once it gets the go-ahead for the next step in the project. Northvolt says it will put mitigation measures in place to reduce dust and nuisance. It also plans to replant 2.5 trees for every one it cuts down. 

The company claims the batteries it will build will have a carbon footprint that is 90 per cent less than its main competitors, who are based in China. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2024. 

Stéphane Blais, The Canadian Press