By Talmon Joseph Smith
© The New York Times Co.
Inside a colossal new plant, about 13 football fields long, the employees of SK Battery America are at work 24/7, essential players in the high-stakes early days of a worldwide battle to build the motors of the future.
The sweeping new climate bill that just passed in Congress and was signed by President Joe Biden allocates nearly $400 billion over 10 years to encourage the clean energy transition and the growth of factories precisely like this one in Commerce, Ga.: a gleaming gray structure, midway through the semirural stretch of Georgia between Atlanta and Greenville, S.C., where the exurbs are encroaching, life is getting more expensive and a job building an electric car doesn’t mean you can afford one, at least not yet.
In green, taupe, teal and navy uniforms color-coded to their specific role — engineer, operator, maintenance, quality control — masked workers shuffle carts filled with half-finished parts between mechanical stations arranged like cavernous grocery aisles.
Supervisors peek at tablet screens, tweaking dials, overseeing the robotic orchestra tucked behind thin, sterile walls of glass. A dizzying variety of machines pirouette perfectly around one another, chopping, welding and packaging: an ensemble that turns raw, rhinosize rolls of copper and aluminum coated with nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite into small but mighty packets
— battery cells. Each one no longer or heavier than a hardback book.
All told, once packed and charged together and inside a new Ford F-150 Lightning, these lithium-ion batteries can make that all-electric truck, weighing in at more than 3 tons, lurch forward from zero to 60 mph in just about four seconds.
“Listen, I drove it home last night; it’s badass,” said Cody Cain, the general manager at Billy Cain Ford, the local dealership owned by his father, Billy, which sits 1 mile away from the battery plant. “It’s an unbelievable vehicle.”
On a spin down the twolane roadways of northeast Georgia’s Appalachian foothills, a display model of the Ford Lightning whizzes along. The truck wields the force of a 580-horsepower motor with silent ferocity, and zero carbon emissions — indistinguishable from its gas-powered brethren aside from the absence of exhaust pipes and roars from the front grill.
The Lightning, Cain noted, also doubles as a mobile generator — able to juice up various tools at a work site, recharge your home if the power goes out in a storm, or plug in anything on a camping trip. Great for big families, contractors or coaches, something Cain, 41, a former college baseball player, has been.
In the near future, the socalled Rust Belt, along with the Deep South, could become the Battery Belt. And the F-150 Lightning, paired with its growing slate of American-made competitors, could offer an allaround win: manufacturing revitalized, gas money saved, and the potential to curb the transportation sector’s leading 27% share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A clean-energy transition temptingly driven by strong, spacious, all-American vehicles with cultural cachet.
The problem is that Cain and other dealers sell cars and trucks to people in the here and now. And right now, he says, “they’re not buying electric because there are none.”
In terms of availability, it’s barely an exaggeration. The global supply chain crisis has hobbled automotive production, hurting the industrywide ramp-up in electric vehicles. “We’re still delivering Broncos that we ordered two years ago,” Cain said, referring to Ford’s new gas-powered rival to the Jeep. “So the same thing is going to happen on this vehicle.”
The good news — that consumer demand for the Lightning is high — is often overwhelmed by the bad. People may have to wait three years for a truck. Another problem: Even if the Lightning were available, Cain said, “In Jackson County, where we are in Commerce, Ga., there’s not a lot of people that can afford it.”
The median individual income in Jackson County is $32,051. This month, Ford announced that prices for the 2023 Lightning will range from about $47,000 to $97,000 — a jump of $8,500 for some models. That effectively erases much of the purchasing power granted by the fresh tax credit on offer from the government for purchasing a new EV, worth up to $7,500.
The average price for a new EV is more than $66,000 — and up 14% on a yearly basis. This puts the electric vehicle transition in an anxious limbo: To pull off a real cultural shift, industry analysts and EV enthusiasts say, cars that plug in can’t remain exclusive to the curious and privileged for much longer. They’ll need to be physically and financially accessible enough to as many people as possible — and soon enough to generate the momentum needed to propel them from an experiment to a sustainable norm.
“In the worst time in the world,” Cain said. “We want to push all of this electric down people’s throat, when there’s no parts.”
The battery business
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, which retains a more than 60% share of the U.S. electric vehicle market, has declared “lithium batteries are the new oil.”
If the analogy holds, that puts Commerce — and the bet the local government has made by luring SK Battery America, the U.S. subsidiary of a South Korean energy conglomerate — in early gold rush territory.
The Georgia factory is expected to produce 21.5 million kilowatt-hours in annual capacity that could power more than 430,000 new electric vehicles each year once site construction is fully complete. Last month, Ford sealed an agreement with SK to expand their joint venture, building three battery facilities in Tennessee and Kentucky. The manufacturing facility, which also produces batteries for a Volkswagen EV, is now up to about 1,900 employees and is hiring roughly 50 employees a week, at base pay of about $18 an hour, more than twice the state’s minimum wage.
Those jobs are why John Clark Hill, the mayor of Commerce since 2012, helped roll out the red carpet for the plant. A physician with a practice in the county, Hill sees himself as a steward of the legacy left to him by previous city leaders who bet on growth through infrastructure: the train tracks they put through the middle of town that first made it a business hub, the people who made sure Interstate 85 curved right by the area. According to an offer letter, SK came to Commerce after receiving a $300 million incentive package of tax breaks, grants and cheap property from the state and Jackson County. “We had other opportunities, but they were all warehousing jobs,” the mayor said.
Once a cozy mill town well beyond the outskirts of Atlanta, Commerce is increasingly an industrial hub. Distribution centers — run by Pepsi, Toyota, GE and others — now nest off highway exits near diners and exurban cul-de-sacs. As Atlanta continues to boom — its big-city wealth crawling up the I-85 corridor — generations of local families are at risk of being priced out.
“What we were looking for was better jobs — more manufacturing jobs that gave people the opportunity for upward mobility,” Hill said. “Not a dead-end job, but more important, a job where people can make a living wage: where you have two people working in the business and they can afford a home.”
Despite the mayor’s enthusiasm, the road for SK Battery America has been somewhat rocky since it broke ground in Commerce in 2019.
Last year, the U.S. International Trade Commission ruled SK had stolen trade secrets from the energy arm of LG. SK filed a motion in response declaring “the Commission’s orders destroy the economic viability of SK’s investment in battery production in Georgia and will rationally and inevitably lead to its abandonment.” That prescribed fate was only narrowly avoided when SK agreed to a $1.8 billion settlement with LG. But it created a suboptimal first impression.
In an interview at the plant, the CEO of SK Battery America, Jun Yong Jeong — who goes by Timothy for those who find “the pronunciation is difficult” — says that relations with the community have been warm and welcoming, and that he loves Southern cuisine.
But the “abandonment” talk led to bad press that undeniably left some Jackson County residents with reservations about SK’s commitment to the community.
Plenty of people around town also associate the battery plant with the rapid development that has cropped up around it, including the recent shutdown and impending sale of a nearby site owned by the National Hot Rod Association — home to a beloved drag racing track since the 1980s.
Tamara Padgett, 54, would love to make the base wage of $18 an hour at SK, but a previous work injury to her hands has left her partly disabled, precluding her from manufacturing roles. So, while she attempts to rehab, she supports herself by pairing up with her granddaughter to deliver DoorDash orders.
She has an up-close view of how Jackson County is faring these days. “The Motel 6 burned down recently, and a lot of people were living there because they couldn’t afford rent,” she said. “People are running out of places to live.”
“Nothing but opportunity here”
Stepping out of the summer heat and back into the factory’s bright, tall, airconditioned main lobby, the loose band of new SK employees trailing a human resources representative giving an orientation tour seemed relieved.
The unemployment rate in Jackson County is near 2%. But as other employers complain about labor shortages, hiring at SK, where the base pay adds up to a little more than $37,000 a year, has continued apace.
Sitting under the crisp white lights of a conference room in the Georgia facility, Desmond Salmon, 47, a production manager at SK with more than 17 years of auto industry experience, said he was happy to see that, on this day, about 90% of young recruits going through orientation happened to be Black like him.
“It feels good,” he said. “When people of color find out my position here, they’re shocked. And I tell them: ‘Don’t be; there’s nothing but opportunity here. There’s plenty of room for growth.’ ”