Electric Road Trip

Battery production goes big in the Southeast

COMMERCE, Ga. — We got a sneak peek today at a much-hyped electric vehicle battery plant.

SK Innovation, a South Korean conglomerate, is building the $1.7 billion plant on a patch of land here the size of 10 football fields. The plant has generated a lot of buzz among auto analysts and other observers because it stands to solve a crucial missing link in the U.S. electric vehicle supply chain.

Currently, most lithium-ion batteries for EVs are produced overseas in China and other countries, except for those made at Tesla Inc.'s gigafactory in Nevada. If this Georgia plant is up and running in 2022 as planned, it will supply batteries for several U.S. auto manufacturers, including Volkswagen AG in Chattanooga, Tenn. And it might not be the only one in the area.

When we arrived at the construction site, we were told to put on bright yellow vests, hard hats and protective goggles. Then we hopped onto a golf cart and drove around the site. Cranes and steel beams towered overhead, and earthmovers roared about.

Above the noise, the construction manager shouted that around 20 truckloads of steel beams arrive at the site each day. He said workers would finish building the exterior of the plant in a month or two.

Scattered throughout the site were signs emblazoned with the company logo, SK Innovation. SK Innovation is the second-largest company in South Korea. It has a hand in a variety of businesses, including microchips and pharmaceuticals. The conglomerate might have produced the microchip in your iPhone, and in fact, it made the battery cells for the Kia Niro EV we are driving.

It may seem odd that a South Korean company would choose Georgia to build the plant. But Steve Jahng, relationship manager for SK Battery America, explained that the state is uniquely positioned as a leader in auto manufacturing.

"As for Georgia, all the global automakers are in this area," Jahng said in a phone interview before the site visit. "Off the top of my head, you've got Volkswagen in Tennessee, BMW in South Carolina, Kia Motors in Georgia and Daimler in Alabama."

He added, "So by situating ourselves in the northeastern part of Georgia, we are able to cover this region. It's the perfect location for us."

Reports have emerged that a battery rival, LG Chem Ltd., is scouting sites for a Southeast auto battery plant to join the one it already runs in Michigan. SK and LG, both Korean, are engaged in a bitter rivalry in the United States; in May, the U.S. International Trade Commission took up a complaint by LG that SK stole its battery trade secrets.

Jahng confirmed that SK Innovation is partnering with VW, whose plant in Chattanooga is a three-hour drive away. He declined to specify which other automakers the company had heard from.

"We are continuing talks with others," he said. "But at this point, Volkswagen Chattanooga is our main partner."

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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