Lion has about 600 electric school buses out on the roads of North America.

Wherever you go in Quebec, talk of hydroelectricity follows. On the economic-development side, everything seems to, quite literally, flow from the province’s abundant clean energy.

All it takes is a quick trip on one of Montreal’s bridges over the St. Lawrence River, or a climb up the old Citadelle of Quebec City, which overlooks a wide riverine expanse, to get a feel for nature’s largesse in a province with nearly five times as much land area as Germany

Hydropower has not only fueled Quebec’s (and the northern U.S.’s) thirst for megawatts, but it also has helped the province accumulate knowhow in the generation and transmission of electricity. 

HydroQuebec, the government-owned utility that provides 99.7 percent (I keep hearing different numbers after the decimal) of the province’s power also funds significant research into these fields.  

As one executive put it: “Hydroelectricity — it’s in our blood, like hockey.”

I mention this because hydropower seems to underpin some of the interrelated industries where Quebec is staking its claim to global dominance. Aluminum (Quebec is the largest producer of so-called “primary” aluminum in the world) takes massive amounts of electricity for smelting, for instance. The intense computing behind artificial intelligence (another Quebec strong suit) creates massive amounts of heat and power usage at data centers, which is why so many tech companies are seeking green sources for powering their server farms. 

But what it’s really driving is electric mobility and battery innovation, and the province is in the early stages of what could be a dramatic transformation in its manufacturing sector. The province has given up any notion of challenging Ontario (or the U.S.) on passenger vehicles or auto parts, instead carving out a niche in fleet vehicles — school buses, transit buses, coaches, subway cars, forklifts, vacuum trucks and more.

The Quebec government is making a bet, along with private-sector partners mobilized through a nonprofit known as Propulsion Quebec, that it can become a sort of living laboratory that first closes the loop on environmental sustainability in ground transportation in a cost-effective way. With strategic mineral deposits, investments in recycling and that ever-present cheap, clean electricity, Quebec aims to be one of the few places where the transition to electric avoids the problems of moving emissions “from the tailpipe to the smokestack” or creating battery graveyards that leach chemicals into the soil.

It struck me that this transition is happening in the home province of Bombardier, the business-jet maker that until 2020 also manufactured passenger rail cars. 

As the longtime head of Aero Montreal, Suzanne Benoît, reminded me in an interview, aviation requires long production cycles and faces heavy stringent safety regulations. Crossing this “Death Valley” is no picnic, and companies require support from government, academia and the private-sector — indeed, corralling all these resources was why Aero Montreal was created in 2006 under her leadership. 

That sounds a lot like what is happening in the e-mobility sector now, and judging by visits to a few factories, the process of making a bus in some ways is more like making a plane than its four-wheeled cousin, the car.  

Workers at Lion assemble electrified chassis for buses and trucks.
Workers at Lion assemble electrified chassis for buses and trucks.

To oversimplify, aerospace is a high mix, low volume endeavor, meaning that it requires a lot of precision parts but the number of completed units is small. This contrasts with the rapid-fire production of passenger cars. For comparison, Kia churns out 360,000 vehicles annually from its West Point plant; Lockheed-Martin in Marietta produces just tens of C-130 cargo transport planes.

Buses are similarly low-volume, but they aren’t low on technology. I visited Lion Electric on the first day of the trip, which is making battery-powered transport trucks and electric school buses at a plant in Saint-Jerome, about 40 minutes outside Montreal. Along with adding three-point seatbelts, one of the company’s early innovations after founding in 2011 was to make buses out of composite materials — the same type used in, you guessed it, airplanes. It took five years for the founder’s vision of going all-electric to go from declaration to achievement.

The company’s proprietary chassis, customized depending on whether it’s a truck carrying cargo or a bus ferrying kids, employs motors that were developed through research supported by HydroQuebec. The lithium-ion battery packs look like someone disassembled a massive laptop and bolted the battery to the frame. 

On Lion’s factory floor, there aren’t any robots welding and riveting with terrible speed; human teams work at different stages, outfitting the buses with seats, electronics and other parts as it rolls laterally down toward the end of the line, where the frame is plopped down onto the chassis.  

What’s striking is the number of people working amid the racks and equipment — not huge crews, but very methodical, without the whiz-bang intensity of an auto factory. Banking on big growth (and to comply with “Buy American” content rules) Lion just took control of a new factory in Joliet, Ill., where it says it will make 20,000 vehicles per year — both buses and trucks. So far, about 600 Lion Electric school buses ply the streets. 

Nova Bus frames are made of durable steel — they come into the plant ready to be outfitted largely by human workers whose tasks focus on precision over speed.

It’s a similar scene at Nova Bus’s Saint-Eustache factory, about 25 minutes back toward Montreal. The trademark steel frames for the transit buses come into the plant upside down, looking for all the world like squared-off fuselages. After core components are added, the frame is flipped at a station factory workers call the “barbecue,” then makes its way progressively toward completion.

Emmanuelle Toussaint, the vice president who hosted my visit, says the Volvo-owned company will supply about 1,200 transit buses per year between its plants in Quebec and Plattsburgh, N.Y. — about a fifth of demand for new transit buses in North America in a given year. 

A recent landmark order for the all-electric LFSe+ model came in for 24 vehicles —low-volume, to be sure, but exemplary of the high upside for Quebec’s unique manufacturing industry. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...