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EV battery manufacturing energizes southern communities in "Battery Belt"

EV battery plants boost U.S. manufacturing
New electric vehicle battery plants drive manufacturing boom 04:04

As the auto workers' strike enters its third week, one of the key sticking points is workers' pay in electric vehicle battery plants. Many of the plants are being built in the southern United States, where the workforce is predominantly non-union.

Over the past three years, more than $90 billion in battery investments have been announced nationwide, resulting in an estimated 70,000 manufacturing jobs. The growth is concentrated in about eight states: Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, forming what is now known as the "Battery Belt."

Many of the states are politically conservative and have opposed climate legislation, despite their contributions to the booming EV manufacturing industry. Georgia, which has seen substantial investment, imposed a new tax on public EV charging this summer.

But in towns like Commerce, Georgia, a manufacturing boom is taking place, reinvigorating the local economy. The town with a population of 7,700 — and steadily growing — is seeing a resurgence of business activity. Mayor Clark Hill said new businesses, like a brewery, are opening in the downtown area. 

"When you have a company investing more than $2.5 billion in your community, it attracts a lot of attention," Hill said.

That company is called SK On, an affiliate of South Korean conglomerate SK Group. Their massive manufacturing plant in Commerce produces battery cells for electric vehicles.

Jae Won Chey, executive vice chairman of SK On, said their factory is as large as "13 football fields" and can make batteries for over 400,000 cars.

SK On, which supplies batteries to automakers like Ford, is part of a broader trend: foreign battery manufacturers are opening dozens of new plants in the United States to be closer to the automakers they supply. Despite some recent job cuts, the company employs more than 3,000 people at the single plant, providing opportunities for people like Desmond Salmon, who lives 20 minutes away.

"This is a great opportunity for me to be a part of this," Salmon said.

Mike O'Kronley, CEO of Ascend Elements in Covington, Georgia, is part of the domestic EV supply chain. His company recycles used EV batteries, extracting valuable metals like nickel, cobalt and lithium. The recycling effort is another crucial component of the growing EV industry.

"I'm really proud to be part of that and I know a lot of team members are very proud to be part of that," O'Kronley said.

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