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Enfinite’s battery storage facility north of Irma, Alta.DARRYL MACDONALD/CLEAR BLUE PHOTO

Enfinite, already the biggest player in energy storage in Alberta, is about to flip the switch on 60 more megawatt hours (MWh) of capacity spread over three facilities near Grande Prairie, about 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

The new projects – “days away” from coming online – will bring the company’s total energy storage capacity to 180 MWh, chief executive officer Jason White says. They’re among the latest additions in what he sees as a big year for the adoption of energy storage technology, in his province and beyond.

“Everybody in Canada is starting,” he says, while acknowledging such projects don’t materialize overnight. “They’ve obviously been planning for years.”

Enfinite’s utility-scale Tesla “Megapack” lithium ion batteries will add to Canada’s still relatively small capacity for energy storage, estimated by industry group Energy Storage Canada to be less than one gigawatt hour (1,000 MWh) in total across the country. Energy Storage Canada estimates that in order to reach Canada’s climate goals of a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, we’ll need at least eight to 12 times that capacity.

There have been several big announcements in Ontario this year related to plans for expanded energy storage capacity, including a 250 MW project in the works at Six Nations of the Grand River, 100 kilometres southwest of Toronto. That project alone is anticipated to reduce emissions by between 2.2 to 4.1 million tonnes, the equivalent to taking up to 40,000 cars off the road, according to Michelle Chislett, executive vice-president of onshore renewables with Northland Power, the majority owner of the project.

But despite such announcements, experts say Canada is lagging well behind many other countries in adding storage capacity – as well as in investments in technology research that will enable the sector to fulfill its potential in greening the grid.

Mr. White says it’s a different world in the United States, for example, where emissions-reductions measures from last year’s Inflation Reduction Act are among the factors leading to massive energy storage investments.

“In the [U.S.], they do huge procurements, gigawatt-scale,” he explains, noting Enfinite, which launched in 2018, was an early adopter in this country. “There was a time we had 40 MW online and were the largest operator in Canada.”

Energy storage, which contributes to decarbonization by storing clean energy for use at a later time than when it is produced, can take several forms. Lithium ion batteries are most affordable and widely used to date, but most can only store energy optimally for about four hours, says Justin Rangooni, executive director at Energy Storage Canada.

Technologies including thermal storage, compressed air or pumped hydro storage – such as the 175 MWh pump generating station at Niagara Falls – can hold power longer but are more dependent on specific geological factors such as waterfalls or underground caves, he notes.

For Canada to build storage capacity, its various energy system operators and governments need to start planning now for the needs of the future, Mr. Rangooni says. Technologies that hold energy for longer are more complicated projects to build compared with installing a barrage of batteries, so will require more forethought – but will also have a more substantive payoff, he says.

“We’re trying to send this signal now,” he adds.

Linda Nazar, a chemistry professor at the University of Waterloo and the Canada Research Chair in solid state energy materials, says Canada is also behind when it comes to funding research and development into longer duration battery technologies that could better help the country meet its climate goals.

“We have virtually no industry in Canada that does [research and development], partly because companies here are just branch arms of U.S. companies,” she says, while applauding the recent explosion in plans for battery production plants across the country, including several in Quebec.

“I’m hoping that the foreign companies such as BASF and Umicore will be able to jump-start efforts here. It’s wonderful they moved in, but why aren’t there domestic companies? We even have battery minerals in Canada. We have most of them that are necessary.”

Dr. Nazar, an expert in solid-state batteries, says Europe, Asia and the U.S. are far ahead of Canada in advancing their own battery technologies. “I think the country has been caught with its pants down a little bit,” she says.

But while battery production in Canada is starting to ramp up, the country’s institutions are not generating enough of the experts needed to make it an energy storage powerhouse in its own right, Dr. Nazar says.

“What we’re not catching up to is generating the know-how knowledge: research personnel, the actual people who will be needed to kick-start this new area of the economy,” she says. “We just don’t have enough of them. In order to scale at the manufacturing level we need, we’re going to be desperately short of people to run the facilities and to do the research needed to get the products off the line.”

“We are so behind that it’s sort of sad,” Dr. Nazar adds. “I can’t answer you whether we will be able to catch up, but I can tell you a huge effort will be needed.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to energy storage capacity by megawatt (MW) instead of megawatt hours (MWh). This version has been updated.

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