Image of the company's first US battery factory in Liberty, NC courtesy of Toyota

The Southeast US Battery Belt Is Learning To Love EVs

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Laid-off workers in the Southeast have a new option. As electric vehicle battery plants rise in the region, they’re accompanied by good jobs, and these jobs are better paying than any of the previous textile or furniture industry positions from years past. EV battery plants are reinvigorating areas left destitute by factory closings, to the point that the region has a new nickname: the Battery Belt. It’s a designation for a geographic manufacturing sector that is becoming the core for the domestic cleantech supply chain.

Several multi-billion dollar battery and battery component factories have opened or been announced in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The growth of the battery industry isn’t happening in a vacuum, though. To realize the economic, environmental, and social opportunities that come with building a strong EV battery industry, Biden-Harris administration policies have been explicitly designed to return manufacturing and technology research, development, and production to the US. To spur growth, the administration launched the American Battery Materials Initiative alongside $2.8 billion in grants from DOE to build out the battery mineral and material supply chain.

Yet it’s not only blue states that are benefiting from these Democratic-led efforts. A whole bunch of these Battery Belt jobs are opening up in Republican-leaning states.

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The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) brings with it investments expected to exceed $80 billion and create 49,000 new jobs across the US. The Southeast will receive 49.4% of the total 77 EV battery and associated industry projects. The Southeast US has been an automotive manufacturing site since the 1990s, although historically, the majority of EV batteries have been manufactured in Asia.

That is changing.

One example is Toyota’s first EV battery factory in Liberty, North Carolina. With the estimated cost of $14 billion, it should employ around 6,000 people and is expected to be operational in 2025. The Toyota Battery Manufacturing, North Carolina (TBMNC) is set to advance Toyota’s strategy to reduce carbon emissions through hybrid and battery electric vehicles, according to a company press release. The jobs will reflect trends for the future: training for jobs at Toyota, as reported by NPR, takes place in simulated clean rooms. Maximum lifting = 33 pounds. Precision automation. Ability to manipulate robotics and assistatory (ph) tools.

The evolution of US-based manufacturing shifts the balance of power and offers new opportunities in states ready to provide ample utilities, labor, and raw materials needed for production purposes. Why is the US Southeast so well-suited for battery manufacturing?

The attributes of the region include:

  • plenty of land
  • critical infrastructure like highways
  • economic and workplace incentives
  • port connectivity
  • access to raw materials
  • business-friendly environments (read: laws that prevent strong unions)

Then again, the region also may prove to pose barriers for battery manufacturing, such as:

  • labor constraints
  • construction funding roadblocks
  • significant utilities requirements
  • complicated permitting

The new jobs will be more simply a one-stop manufacturing site. A December, 2023 report by Cushman & Wakefield notes that this spatial proximity not only reduces shipping costs but also increases overall production efficiency in the electric vehicle ecosystem. The report notes that:

“The Southeast’s well-established automotive manufacturing industry and the business-friendly state governments help position the region as a crucial player in shaping the industry’s future, providing an environment for technological advancements, production efficiencies, and sustainability initiatives.”

The US Department of Energy forecasts that US production of batteries will increase 18-fold from 2021 to 2030. Batteries are one point along the EV supply chain, so suppliers and secondary vendors are seeing the strategic advantage of being close to the action and are relocating to the same geographic areas as plants and automakers. Such communities that specialize in midstream supplier manufacturing are less at risk of economic disruption due to the EV transition.

A series of real estate and industry events described in the Cushman & Wakefield report demonstrate the gestalt that’s occurring in the Battery Belt as a result of IRA investments.

The largest lithium-ion deposit in US — and one of the most prolific lithium mines in the world — sits just west of Charlotte at Kings Mountain, nicknamed the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt.

Chemical manufacturer Albemarle acquired the Kings Mountain mine and surrounding land in an acquisition of Rockwood Holdings in 2015. The company launched the Battery Materials Innovation Center (BMIC), a state-of-the-art battery technology lab on the site in 2021.

Piedmont Lithium is in the planning stages of a proposed mine in Belmont. The company is actively working on the state permitting process with a goal of a 2025 construction start, should the project receive approval. Piedmont Lithium owns, leases, or has under contract 3,600 acres in Gaston County for the project and expects to employ more than 425 people upon full buildout.

Near Raleigh-Durham, VinFast and Wolfspeed alone will add nearly 2.0 million square feet of manufacturing product to Chatham County.

Known as the BATT CAVE — the North Carolina Battery Complexity, Autonomous Vehicle and Electrification Research Center — UNC Charlotte’s $40 M autonomous vehicle and electrification research center aims to create a new talent pool of EV industry workers in partnership with GM, BMW, Albemarle, Duke Energy, and the US Department of Energy.

Final Thoughts about the Battery Belt

John Goodenough is the idea person behind the lithium-ion battery. He researched how how lithium could interact with cobalt oxide and double a battery’s capacity. In 2019, Goodenough shared the Nobel Prize with 2 others “for the development of lithium-ion batteries.” The Nobel Committee said that “lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives. … They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.”

The US didn’t grasp the full extent of shipping jobs overseas and fell behind in many manufacturing sectors, including technology. As a result, China continues to dominate the battery market and will be responsible for about 65% of the battery industry by next year, according to Statistica.

The Southeast Battery Belt expansion, though, is incrementally eating away at China’s leadership in the field. Will Battery Belt voters thank the Biden-Harris administration for their investment in their home regions? It’s hard to tell while many Battery Belt legislators push for anti-clean energy policies.

As RMI states in a 2023 report:

“A range of new technologies and processes are poised to continue reshaping the sector, including battery manufacturing, additive manufacturing, flexible manufacturing, autonomous final assembly, and end-of-life vehicle recycling.”

The authors argue that policy decision makers and influencers can take action in creating a robust regional EV and battery supply chain, contributing to a growing national supply chain. The Southeast seems to see such a future unfolding right before them. We’ll have to wait to see if the citizens of these states grab onto the full set of opportunities before them.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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