The unlikely center of America's EV battery revolution

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COMMERCE, Ga. - The battery plant just north of Commerce is hard to miss. It looms over Interstate 85 like a monolith: sheer gray walls many stories high, a vast parking lot that extends almost half a mile. Online, some employees complain about having to trek long distances to reach their posts.

On a Friday afternoon in late March, dozens of workers were lining up at the guardhouse to start their shifts building batteries for vehicles like the Ford F-150 Lightning and the Volkswagen ID.4. The factory, which opened in early 2022, employs over 2,600 people - about a third of the town's population.

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The battery plant, operated and owned by the U.S. wing of the South Korean company SK Group, is one of a bonanza of electric vehicle investments that are transforming rural Georgia from sleepy, quiet towns to a bustling "battery belt." But even as Gov. Brian Kemp (R) aims to make Georgia the "electric mobility capital of America," he and other Republicans are doing little to put more EVs on state roads - or to acknowledge the climate reasons behind the switch.

Georgia isn't the only state with a Republican governor to reap huge benefits from the clean energy push. Many of the major projects announced since President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes numerous clean energy incentives, are landing in congressional districts represented by Republicans. Now the key question is whether the jobs those projects bring to these states will shift public attitudes about climate change - or fail to bridge the national divide.

"It's quite surprising that a lot of the resources are being channeled into red states," said Thomas Oatley, a professor of political science at Tulane University.

So far, Georgia is one of the biggest winners in the quest for clean energy jobs. Since 2020, it has attracted 35 electric-vehicle-related projects and an estimated 27,400 jobs. With $15.27 billion pledged so far, the state leads the country in new clean energy investments. Battery and vehicle manufacturers in particular - as well as battery recycling plants and auto parts suppliers - have flocked to Southern states, chasing expanded federal tax credits and generous state incentives.

The signs of this shift are everywhere. About an hour and a half southwest of Commerce, excavators are tearing up ground for electric truck maker Rivian's 20-million-square-foot, $5 billion factory - which reportedly will include a driving test track and an "adventure trail." And by the coast, just 30 miles outside of Savannah, Korean automaker Hyundai is building a "metaplant" that promises to produce 300,000 electric vehicles every year.

But Georgia Republican lawmakers haven't fully embraced electric vehicles: Last month, the state Senate passed a tax on public EV charging. Along with the governor, most state lawmakers rarely mention "climate change" - or the emissions reductions and environmental benefits of switching to electric vehicles.

The result is a strange moment in Georgia's shift toward making and selling EVs: A state with one foot in - and one foot out - of a massive transition.

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Free training, low taxes and 'right to work'

About 90 minutes south of the SK factory, three workers heaved silver-plated lithium-ion battery modules onto a conveyor belt. The modules, which had come from car companies and battery manufacturers around Georgia, moved up the conveyor belt into a frightening-looking machine with long, rotating metal teeth. The teeth would crush and tear modules into small shreds of plastic, metal and what is known as "black mass," dustings of lithium, manganese and other valuable rare earth elements that could be recycled into new batteries.

"It's like a bad horror movie," one of the workers quipped.

The conveyor belt sat in the middle of the newly opened Ascend Elements battery recycling facility, the largest of its kind in North America. At full capacity, it will be able to recycle 70,000 electric vehicle batteries per year. The process can recover up to 98 percent of the critical metals used in those batteries, including nickel, cobalt, manganese and lithium. Those materials can be made into new battery cathodes by Ascend or sold back to the battery manufacturers.

Ascend came to Georgia largely because of SK - the South Korean company needed a recycler to help process its battery scrap into new materials. But its executives also made a strategic decision to follow the growth of the battery belt and a jackpot of state incentives. "We wanted to geographically align ourselves with battery manufacturing," said Mike O'Cronley, the company's CEO.

After all, Georgia isn't the only Southern state going hard on EV investments. Companies like Toyota, Ford and BMW have also descended on South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky - investing billions of dollars in battery plants and EV manufacturing facilities.

In Georgia, the Department of Economic Development offers to help companies like Ascend find a site for their plants and guide them through the permitting process. Big players can also receive tax abatements and employee training.

Rivian's factory near Rutledge, Ga., for example, received an estimated $1.5 billion in tax abatements, funding for the factory and employee training. The SK factory in Commerce pulled in around $300 million from state and county governments.

Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia economic development agency, said the state has learned how to quickly attract major electric vehicle manufacturers. Georgia, he said, wants to be ready for any opportunity for job development with free land, ready-to-go permitting and workforce training. Georgia Quick Start, a program affiliated with the Technical College System of Georgia, can rapidly spin up a training program to provide workers for newly opened factories.

"While they are building their plant, we will in parallel find and train employees here in Georgia. So on day one, when they turn on their facility, they have employees," Wilson said. "That is our secret sauce." Quick Start has even sent representatives to Korea to learn from Hyundai's training program.

Almost all Southern states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee, are what conservatives call "right to work" states - meaning employees can't be required to join a union as a condition of employment. Such states have gotten the lion's share of clean energy and EV money, including four of the six that have received the most new investments, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas. A fifth, Michigan, recently repealed its right-to-work law. One study by researchers at Georgia Tech that examined almost 20,000 collective bargaining agreements found that right-to-work laws are associated with lower wages among unionized employees.

"The right-to-work aspect is compelling to a certain number of CEOs," said Mike Carr, partner at the consultancy Boundary Stone. But with a tight labor market, Carr said, he isn't sure that it's a deciding factor. "When you look at a place like Georgia, the competition for talent is going to be pretty fierce," he said.

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Lackluster EV policies - and don't say 'climate'

But even as Georgia becomes a hub for EV manufacturing, its lawmakers have been hesitant to fully embrace electric cars or to mention how going electric could help curb global warming. That puts Georgia among a growing number of conservative or swing states that encourage the manufacturing of clean energy but stop short of enacting policies to accelerate the energy transition.

In March, for example, Georgia legislators approved a plan to tax electricity delivered by public chargers at the rate of 2.84 cents per kilowatt-hour. The tax, which Kemp has yet to sign into law, is meant to compensate for lost revenue from the gas tax, but environmental and climate groups say that it amounts to double-charging Georgians who drive electric cars. (EV drivers in the state already pay a $211 registration fee to compensate for lost gas taxes, one of the highest such fees in the nation.)

Jennette Gayer, state director for Environment Georgia, said she worries that the tax will dissuade people from switching to electric vehicles. "This extra tax is kind of galling because it's like, 'Wait, then what is this registration fee that we're paying?'" she said.

Georgia ranks fairly highly in EV registrations - with 34,000 fully electric vehicles registered in the state, it clocks in at 10th in the country, according to the Department of Energy. But Gayer says that's largely because the state once had a $5,000 tax credit for electric cars that was discontinued in 2015.

Other Southern states in the battery belt have almost no electric vehicles - and similarly unfriendly policies. South Carolina has only around 7,000 EVs registered, while Alabama and Kentucky have less than 5,000. South Carolina has been ranked one of the top 10 least EV-friendly states, thanks to its paucity of charging stations; Tennessee will soon impose the highest registration fee for electric cars in the nation.

Georgia is also one of a group of states that outlaw direct sales of vehicles - stymieing companies like Tesla and Rivian that don't sell their vehicles through dealerships. Tesla has received a carve-out to allow the company to operate five direct-to-consumer stores in the Atlanta area. But Rivian - despite locating its second factory in the heart of Georgia - will not be able to sell its vehicles in the state.

"If the products of the manufacturers you're attracting can't be readily sold or purchased in that state - well, you've got a challenge," said Stan Cross, electric transportation policy director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Many Republican lawmakers in the state seem to see EVs as a future to be managed, not encouraged. Kemp, who has championed the shift to e-mobility, stops short of mentioning climate change or pushing residents to buy EVs; instead, he argues Georgia is simply allowing the free market to operate.

"He's not going to force anyone to get an EV," said Garrison Douglas, the governor's press secretary. "He's not looking to force the market in any one direction or another."

State Sen. Steve Gooch (R), the majority leader and co-sponsor of the recent EV legislation, said he continues to be unsure whether electric cars are better for the environment than gas-powered ones. "I think the jury's still out on that," he said.

Gooch helped oversee a comprehensive report on electrifying Georgia's transportation system, which stretches to 513 pages. It mentions "climate change" once.

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Shifting politics?

At the moment, both sides of the aisle claim credit for what's happening in Georgia. Its two Democratic U.S. senators - Jon Ossoff and Raphael G. Warnock - point to the Inflation Reduction Act as the reason for the boom in battery manufacturing. (The bill included a generous tax credit for the production of battery components in the United States and a consumer tax credit for electric vehicles assembled in the country.) Experts tend to agree: According to Carr, the Boundary Stone consultant, "It's hard to see even a third of these investments happening" without the IRA.

State Republicans, meanwhile, point to the generous incentives that have been offered by the state itself. "Georgia was attracting these top-level investments from folks like Rivian and Hyundai prior to the Inflation Reduction Act," Douglas said.

Some experts suggest that the growth in EV jobs in states like Georgia could ease the intense polarization in views on climate change.

Oatley, the political scientist, argues that part of the schism on climate change stems from an economic divide. Republican voters are more likely to live in areas where jobs are closely tied to carbon-emitting industries like auto manufacturing or coal-fired power generation; Democratic voters, on the other hand, are more likely to live on the coasts and work at a desk in "knowledge-based" jobs.

"If you get a growing number of people employed in the clean energy sector, that could increase support for climate policy in red and purple states," Oatley said.

Georgia is far from that point today. But the tens of thousands of jobs coming to the state make it difficult for politicians to oppose the transition. Former GOP senator David Perdue, who ran for governor against Kemp in 2022, was a vocal critic of the Rivian plant, calling the carmaker a "woke California company." But that anti-EV message failed to gain much support - Perdue was soundly defeated in the primary.

"If Georgians start to think of themselves as the heart of clean energy manufacturing - I don't know how you run against that and win," Carr said.

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