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Growing 'battery belt' for EV plants could spark economy

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Southeast U.S. is becoming a hub for electric vehicle batteries. The boom is reinvigorating the manufacturing sector in places where it has long been in decline. Jay Price of North Carolina Public Radio reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: When the Klaussner home furnishings factory in Asheboro, N.C., abruptly closed in August, it left nearly 900 workers unemployed. At age 57, Cassandra Hall faced the daunting prospect of somehow starting over.

CASSANDRA HALL: Oh, that was devastating. I mean, I had been there for 20-plus years, ran the same machine almost the entire time I was there.

PRICE: It was a familiar story. For decades across the Southeast, manufacturing jobs in traditional industries like textiles and furniture have been fading away. This time, though, laid-off workers like Hall had a new option. Within a month, she found a job with better pay and a focus on the future of manufacturing rather than the past.

HALL: I was amazed. I really was.

PRICE: Amazed to land on her feet and with one of the world's largest automakers, Toyota, which is building its first battery factory for electric vehicles a few minutes north of her old employer. The massive $14 billion plant is expected to employ nearly 6,000 people. Several multibillion-dollar battery and battery component factories have opened or been announced in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

SEAN SUGGS: It's becoming the battery belt, for lack of a better term.

PRICE: Sean Suggs is in charge of the new Toyota battery plant.

SUGGS: Obviously, everything started in the North with building cars and trucks, and everything's kind of migrated to the South but not just for cars and trucks anymore. It's for battery-making.

PRICE: Automakers started coming to the Southeast in a big way in the 1990s. Mercedes built a plant in Alabama, BMW in South Carolina, and more followed, including Toyota. Suggs says his company and others are now seeing the same advantages as they gear up to fill demand for batteries from more than half a dozen plants building EVs in the region.

SUGGS: The thing that we were really, really interested in and we felt like we could capitalize on was the human capital and the people, the talent pool that they had here.

PRICE: The companies are also drawn to the Southeast because there's plenty of land, lucrative tax incentives and laws that prevent strong unions. Giulia Siccardo is with the U.S. Department of Energy, which is helping the EV industry with billions of dollars in grants and loans. She says the region has attracted so many companies, it now has critical mass.

GIULIA SICCARDO: So that draw is very strong, and it's a bit like, you know, inertia.

PRICE: Many of the new jobs bear little resemblance to traditional manufacturing. Toyota workers are already training in simulated clean rooms. None will be expected to lift more than 33 pounds.

JENNIFER MUNDT: This isn't Henry Ford's assembly line, right?

PRICE: Jennifer Mundt is with North Carolina's Commerce Department.

MUNDT: We're talking about clean manufacturing floors. A lot of the work requires precision automation and understanding of robotics and assistatory (ph) tools to help the work get done on the floor.

PRICE: One of those new Toyota employees is 26-year-old Evito Perez. He quit his job at another nearby furnituremaker to step into what he sees as the future.

EVITO PEREZ: Something different and seeing how something - so technology advances coming up to North Carolina, it's something that you want to be a part of. It's a new experience.

PRICE: And an experience a lot of communities around the Southeast are suddenly getting in on. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Asheboro, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY Z SONG, "COMING OF AGE (FEAT. MEMPHIS BLEEK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.
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