The South is building the most vibrant EV and battery hub in the US
This story is part of our special series "Made in the USA: Ramping up clean energy manufacturing." Get caught up here.
KINGS MOUNTAIN, North Carolina — The blue-green waters ringed by chalky white cliffs could have been North Carolina’s answer to the Neapolitan coast. I squinted through the pines at the shimmering lake far below and imagined diving into the cool azure.
But there would be no swimming today. A rusty barbed-wire fence ringed the basin, with signs reading “Danger: Open Pit.” The kudzu-carpeted hill I had just climbed was made of rubble that had been scooped out of the lake before it was a lake, back when the Kings Mountain mine and other nearby operations produced more hard-rock lithium than pretty much anywhere else in the world. Then the mines shut down and the mining jobs shipped overseas, like so many other industries at the close of the 20th century.
The pendulum is swinging back now. The Biden administration is betting big that renewing the American industrial machine will speed progress toward decarbonizing the U.S. electric grid by 2035, a crucial step toward addressing climate change. The White House also wants to use that clean electricity to power mass transition to electric vehicles, thereby tackling greenhouse gases from transportation.
Spurred by incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, a whole new Battery Belt is emerging in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, down through Kentucky, and out across Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. It makes sense that those northern states, the historic hub of the American auto industry, would attract billions of dollars for the next wave of auto manufacturing. The region began dipping its toes into battery and EV production over a decade ago, when then-Governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm picked it as a strategic growth industry to help her state bounce back from the Great Recession.
The real surprise is the Southeastern stretch of the belt, a quickly growing cluster of factories spanning everything from lithium processing to battery fabrication to auto assembly to battery recycling.
I’ve covered the battery storage beat since the neolithic days of 2016, when hardly anyone bought electric cars and batteries played a vanishingly small role in the power grid. Until recently, I’d had occasion to write about the Southeast, my onetime home, only a handful of times. The states in this region had never pushed the boundaries of climate policy or clean energy deployment. Then, in the past year, they’ve been busting out one billion-dollar battery or EV factory after another. Georgia — not Michigan — leads the country in post-IRA clean energy factory investments, with over $17 billion, according to a Canary Media analysis. South Carolina comes in second with $9.3 billion, and only then Michigan, with $8.1 billion.
But while it seems like the Southeastern surge in clean energy manufacturing is happening overnight, the ingredients for it were decades in the making.
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the South was known more for making furniture and clothing, said Matt Kisber, who helped recruit Volkswagen to build its Chattanooga plant as the economic development lead for former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen (D). But the region built out a base in chemicals and advanced manufacturing, and in recent decades successfully attracted carmakers.
These industrial activities provided a foundation on which EV manufacturing could flourish when the time was right.
“What we’re seeing play out substantiates the premise that the Southeast is very knowledgeable and productive around advanced manufacturing,” Kisber said. “There’s a legacy there, and in my opinion, battery storage combines all of that — it’s a current-day take on a lot of skills that we’ve used over the last 50 years in the region.”
While it seems like the Southeastern surge in clean energy manufacturing is happening overnight, the ingredients for it were decades in the making.
The South’s relationship to lithium dates back even further, long before anyone expected the metal to drive a clean-transportation revolution. But that local resource has yet to be harnessed in service of the new industrial boom.
Which is why I was standing atop a hill west of Charlotte on a warm May day, peering at the submerged remnants of a long-dormant mine. It was my first stop on a three-day road trip to see firsthand how the EV boom was reshaping the region’s industrial landscape. To understand whether the Southeastern Battery Belt has what it takes to lead America’s clean-energy manufacturing revolution, I had to start at the beginning.
A forgotten mine in just the right place
The Foote Mineral Company opened the Kings Mountain Mine in 1938, tapping a rock formation known as the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt, which is accessible for a couple dozen miles in the rolling hills of Cleveland and Gaston counties.
In those days, lithium was small potatoes. Some of it went to ceramics, for glazing, and some went to pharmaceuticals, for treating bipolar disorder (recall the Nirvana song). Then World War II broke out, and a secret government effort began researching a superweapon unlike anything humanity had seen. The scientists working on the Manhattan Project eventually realized that with a little bit of white metal from the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt, they could trigger a thermonuclear reaction.
The Cold War arms race sustained the mining operations for about half a century. By the late ‘80s, though, Reagan-style neoliberalism reared its well-coiffed head; corporate thinking held that any industrial task that could be done cheaper and with less regulatory oversight overseas should be. The Kings Mountain lithium mine shut down in 1988, about three years before a Japanese electronics company called Sony launched a new type of battery that made its camcorders run longer than its competitors’ models could.
Drop by drop, rainwater filled the abandoned pit. The pile of tailings behind it grew a full head of pine trees and eventually came to be known as “Cardio Hill” after the mining companies donated the land for use as a recreational park. Up the road in Bessemer City, Livent’s Hallman-Beam Mine shuttered in 1996.
Lithium mining companies moved on to Argentina and Chile, and later Australia. As the automotive industry belatedly took interest in the chemistry to propel electric vehicles, China solidified its grasp on the refining of raw lithium into battery precursors and established itself as the hub of lithium-ion battery production, trailed distantly by South Korea and Japan.
There’s a tragic note to Kings Mountain’s fall — how it shut down just as the global lithium-ion battery industry began to rise. But now that tragedy is tinged with comedic irony, a chance for the errors of the past to be neatly resolved.
This kudzu-draped mine and others like it sit just a couple of hours’ drive from the Atlanta stretch of the emerging Battery Belt. Two of the biggest global lithium suppliers, Albemarle and Livent, still process the metal near Charlotte. If the mines could reopen, they would close the loop on regionalized EV production: mine lithium, refine it, turn it into batteries, slip those batteries into vehicles, and recycle the leftovers — all within a couple hundred miles.
Newcomer Piedmont Lithium hopes to open a brand-new mine in the area, but its initial public outreach campaign flopped in one way after another, as documented by HuffPost’s Alex Kaufman. Neighbors worry about mining explosions rattling their bucolic patch of countryside, not to mention the mine’s potential to destabilize the wells that supply all the nearby homes with water.
Albemarle, which now owns the Kings Mountain mine, has been conducting economic-feasibility studies to determine whether it makes sense to revive that long-dormant mine. The company stands a somewhat better chance of winning local support, given the longstanding role of mining in the community; a bustling gravel pit still operates next door to the park I visited.
Even if these mines manage to get up and running, they won’t be able to supply American EV manufacturers with lithium single-handedly. But they could complement hard-rock mining in Canada and extraction from brines and clay formations elsewhere in the U.S. to create a diversified North American supply chain, said lithium markets expert Joe Lowry.
The U.S. should do more to extract critical minerals domestically, but new mining operations need to be accompanied by reforms to ensure better environmental practices and respect for local residents, especially tribal communities, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told me at an event a few weeks after my visit to the park.
“We just haven’t had that as part of our ethos, but we can,” she said. “That would make us, again, a nation that people would prefer to partner with on their minerals.”
For the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt specifically, one challenge is that state regulators often lack the resources to properly police industrial polluters, said former Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts (D). But during her tenure in office, she also worked with companies that proved to be good neighbors. Vulcan Materials, which has a quarry in Charlotte, for instance, set aside dedicated wildlife habitat on its lands and coordinated with nearby residents whenever it needed to blast rock.
“You can do it the right way,” Roberts said. “If the community stays engaged and the company works with them as a neighbor, I’m cautiously optimistic.”
And if the Carolina lithium mining belt is able to regain its former stature, it will have plenty of eager customers just down the road.
Batteries, under construction now
Those would be the lithium-ion battery factories — the next step in the electric vehicle supply chain — that are springing up in droves across the greater Atlanta region.
I drove southwest from Kings Mountain, through the western corner of South Carolina, to the town of Commerce, Georgia. Off an otherwise nondescript highway exit, a monolithic gray factory sits on a hilltop above the Georgia countryside. With guard stations and ramparts around the perimeter, it resembles a fortress, imposing and inaccessible.
South Korea’s SK Corporation opened the $2.6 billion factory in early 2022 — before the Inflation Reduction Act was passed by Congress — making it a Southeastern Battery Belt trailblazer. It ships batteries to Volkswagen’s electric ID.4 production site in Chattanooga, Tennessee and supplies Ford’s F-150 Lightning. SK makes enough batteries here to power 300,000 EVs annually, according to company statements.
The factory feels like a fortress in more ways than one. SK’s Senior Communications Manager Stella Kim declined my requests to visit the facility or interview executives about the operation. But Georgia’s Department of Economic Development has a lot to say about the plant.
Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s office praised SK in January for hitting its employment targets two years ahead of schedule: 2,600 people work there already, and the number was expected to hit 3,000 by year’s end. That makes SK one of the largest single-site employers in the state.
“SK Battery America and the State of Georgia share a common trait: we are never content to rest on our laurels and are always working to reach the next milestone,” Kemp said in a statement.
True to that sentiment, Georgia has already attracted its next wave of battery gigafactories. Though Norwegian company Freyr had been in the process of setting up a plant in the Arctic Circle, it opted to fast-track development of a second factory in Coweta County, southwest of Atlanta, to take advantage of the substantial benefits for U.S.-based battery production in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Freyr is making a $2.6 billion investment in Georgia, in partnership with Koch Industries. It expects to make 2.5 gigawatt-hours’ worth of batteries in 2025, ramping to 38 gigawatt-hours shortly thereafter, and should employ more than 700 people. Freyr licensed the battery tech developed by MIT spinout 24M, which advertises a streamlined production technique that lowers the cost to build a factory — this may explain the lower employment numbers compared to SK for a similarly sized investment.
Meanwhile, SK will team up with Hyundai to build a $5 billion factory in northern Georgia. It’s also partnering with Ford to build $5.7 billion factories near Memphis and in southern Kentucky.
If the Carolina lithium mining belt is able to regain its former stature, it will have plenty of eager customers just down the road.
Georgia came from behind to emerge as a hub of U.S. battery manufacturing, in large part through its courting of SK and other Korean investors. Years ago, the state appointed an economic development lead dedicated specifically to attracting business from South Korea. Yoonie Kim started the job in 2006. In 2022 alone, she helped facilitate $11.5 billion of Korean investment in the state, according to a tally by Site Selection magazine. But the Kemp administration has proven itself willing to court EV employers of all sorts, with tax incentives as well as Georgia’s long-running, state-funded worker training program Quick Start, which prepares workers for jobs at the new factories.
Electric vehicles, made in the Southeast
EV production is well underway just two hours up I-75 from Atlanta.
I cruised past increasingly curvaceous green hills and roadside armadillos that didn’t make it through their morning commutes. Not far beyond the ever-expanding Qcells solar factory in Dalton, flat-topped Lookout Mountain appeared on the horizon, signaling my arrival in Chattanooga. North of town, just off the meandering Tennessee River, I found the Volkswagen factory, a veritable city of industry.
The employee parking lot alone was vast. Workers constantly churned through the gate and along a dramatic pedestrian bridge that crosses into the heart of the factory. On one side of the complex, a bustling private logistics hub feeds components into the facility; on the other, shiny finished VWs are parked in a line across a swath of asphalt.
Like SK Corporation, VW had declined to let me inside, so I took in the sights from the public-facing side of the entrance. I spotted a single sapling sprouting from a patch of grass out front. An adjacent plaque explained that the global Volkswagen board arrived in Chattanooga in July 2022 and planted it “in commemoration of the start of electric vehicle production” there.
The ID.4, Volkswagen’s “electric SUV flagship,” is largely sourced from within the U.S., a spokesperson told me by email. The steel comes from Alabama and Ohio, interior parts from Indiana and South Carolina, electronics from Kentucky and North Carolina. The batteries, of course, come from SK’s base in Georgia. Production team members construct both gas-powered cars and electric cars, but when VW ramped up ID.4 assembly last year, it hired 1,000 new employees and added a third shift. Another 500 hires are coming this year.
This “Buy Local” strategy didn’t materialize out of thin air. It capitalizes on a Southeastern automotive sector that’s been flourishing since the 1970s. Tennessee, for instance, is home to some 900 auto parts suppliers, said Kisber, the former economic development lead for the state. He had mapped them all out for his presentation at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany back in 2007, when he pitched the Tennessee location for a car factory.
That local supply chain now increasingly includes batteries, which reduces the risk of global shipping disruptions or port logjams like those that delayed battery imports during the Covid years. Notably, batteries are also extremely heavy and dense; there’s a logic to producing them as close as possible to the factories that install them in cars.
When it comes to distributing finished products, Tennessee has a real geographical advantage, Kisber said. Roughly half the U.S. population lives within 650 miles of Nashville, per the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Memphis, where Ford is building its combined battery and EV mega-plant, has been a logistics hub for centuries because it’s about halfway up the Mississippi River, Kisber noted. Over the years, the city transformed into a railroad hub, a trucking hub, and — thanks to hometown success story FedEx — now a global air freight hub.
Automakers are taking notice and betting big on the Southeast. Elsewhere in Tennessee, besides Ford’s BlueOval City, GM makes electric Cadillacs at a facility in Spring Hill.
“There’s no question in Tennessee that clean manufacturing, involving EVs, battery storage for mobility and energy, is the leading new investment and job creator in the state and probably in the region,” said Kisber, who co-founded Nashville-based solar developer Silicon Ranch after leaving public office.
Across the region, BMW has added EV production to its plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina (off I-85 partway between historic lithium country and SK’s battery fortress). Hyundai and Kia are building new sites in Georgia. Electric truck startup Rivian looked to be setting up shop outside Atlanta, but the state’s incentive package has been tied up in court in a case brought by residents who oppose the project. Central North Carolina has attracted new factories from Toyota and Vietnamese firm VinFast.
This “Buy Local” strategy didn’t materialize out of thin air. It capitalizes on a Southeastern automotive sector that’s been flourishing since the 1970s.
The density of job opportunities in the Southeastern EV sector creates a virtuous cycle for employees and employers.
“You’re developing clusters of expertise that then attract others that want to take advantage of the workforce and the business climate,” Kisber said. “It benefits the companies that are involved as well as the states that are supporting it.”
It’s no coincidence that this region is solidly “right to work,” meaning workers don’t have to pay union dues even if their workplace is represented by a union; it’s a policy that has been used to weaken union power and give automakers more leverage over their workers. Tennessee just passed a constitutional amendment to perpetuate right-to-work status, with voters approving by a nearly 40-point margin. But those policies haven’t eliminated union power in the region entirely; newly elected United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain has spoken about the need to ensure union representation at the wave of new EV plants popping up.
In Chattanooga, it was clear that the auto manufacturing industry and its mutually reinforcing networks had already reshaped the Southeast’s industrial landscape, so when automakers were ready to go big on EVs, they doubled down on the region.
Battery recycling closes the loop
The Southeastern Battery Belt already produces scrap from battery manufacturing lines, and it will generate waste as old battery packs get pulled out of used EVs. This could become an ecological problem, but it’s a solvable one: Battery recycling is already open for business.
The first operational recycler in the region, Ascend Elements, opened this spring in Covington, Georgia, a historic town with a main square so cute you’d expect it to play a classic American town on TV. Indeed it did, appearing in movies like My Cousin Vinny and shows like The Vampire Diaries, which explains why the wine cooler inside a coffee shop/market on the town square contains what look disturbingly like blood bags.
Ascend Elements spokesperson Thomas Frey stopped me on the threshold of the facility and had me squeeze clingy rubber slip-ons over my dress shoes. This was to save me from face-planting on the industrial floor: Some spots accumulate a fine dusting of graphite from the shredded batteries that, it turns out, is very slippery.
Inside, workers performed a sort of electrical vampirism, sucking any remaining juice out of used battery modules before sending them up a conveyor belt to a two-story-tall “wet shredder,” which Frey described as the largest of its kind in the world. It’s “wet” because the batteries still contain a liquid electrolyte, which is incurably flammable. To mitigate the chances of high-speed blades grinding through metal and sparking a blaze, Ascend drops the batteries through an airlock system into a space purged of oxygen.
Next, the chopped-up bits run through a room-sized rotating kiln, which cooks off the liquid electrolyte. Ascend condenses that material, cleans it up and sells it back to battery makers; in the old days, battery recyclers often just burned it off.
Finally, the remnants are separated according to density and particle size. Aluminum chunks from the casings fall into one bucket, copper in another, magnetic bits in a third. The cream of the crop, though, sifts out as an incredibly fine black powder. This “black mass” contains the metals that make electrodes, the critical parts of the battery that make the electrical current flow. It’s the crux of the battery, and Ascend churns it out by the 1,000-kilogram sack.
A parallel line takes in scrap materials from nearby battery factories, including SK’s, and grinds them down into this same powdery output. Newly built battery factories generate a lot of scrap, especially in the early days of operation, as their technicians calibrate the lines. For now, scrap drives most of the inputs at Ascend’s plant, but the balance of scrap versus batteries is expected to flip as there are more batteries in service long enough to hit retirement age.
Ascend sells its enormous sacks of black mass back to battery manufacturers, which process it themselves to match their proprietary recipes. But the startup is already breaking ground on a $1 billion factory in southern Kentucky that will take the powder and pull out the exact ratio of elements that each battery maker desires, using a new technique that Ascend calls “hydro-to-cathode.” That more advanced step would put Ascend into competition with the mining companies: Recycling yields metals that are good as new without the hassle of digging them out of the earth and pulverizing and refining them. Ascend just announced a $1 billion deal to supply an unnamed U.S. battery manufacturer.
Redwood Materials, launched by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, similarly frames itself as both a recycler and a battery materials company. It’s building a $3.5 billion recycling plant near Charleston that will be able to receive materials from Battery Belt factories and import metals through the Port of Charleston. By 2025, Redwood plans to produce 100 gigawatt-hours per year of cathode active materials and anode foil annually across its U.S. operations; that would supply approximately 1 million electric vehicles.
“To date, nearly all anode and cathode production supplying U.S. battery cell manufacturers occurs overseas in Asia,” said Daniel Zotos, a spokesperson for Redwood Materials. “Localizing the supply chain lowers the environmental footprint of manufacturing batteries and helps mitigate supply-chain risks, which in turn will drive down the costs of EVs. It’s necessary for the overall promise of a clean energy transition.”
Even the recyclers acknowledge that recycling won’t be able to catch up to soaring battery demand for at least the next decade; fresh mining will be needed to keep EV production going. But recycling offers a way to source a growing quantity of battery materials domestically, even if the metals were originally mined overseas. It’s a more responsible route than relying on offshore metals refining, Zotos said, noting that shipping that work abroad “extends and expands the carbon footprint of batteries in the first place, while also sending enormous economic value overseas at a pivotal moment in the energy transition.”
The Southeast has become indispensable to the national quest to clean up transportation-related emissions.
These recycling plants are whirring to life — Ascend is already expanding its facility — while the Kings Mountain mine sits idle, more useful to joggers and dog-walkers than battery makers. That could be how things stay — there’s plenty of lithium to import from places like Chile, Argentina and Australia, which aren’t on the geopolitical-threat list.
“Selfishly, as an American, I want the high-value-add stuff in America,” said Representative Sean Casten (D-Illinois), one of the leading clean-energy thinkers in Congress, when I caught him at a conference before my trip. “I care about where the upgrading is, because that’s the stuff where we should have a competitive advantage.”
The Southeast has already locked in the value-add parts of the EV supply chain. For now, the lithium comes from elsewhere, but over the past year, the region opened its first battery gigafactory, became an EV producer at multiple locations and solidified its leadership in advanced lithium-ion recycling. A slew of companies have signed contracts to drastically expand each of those industrial activities in the next few years.
Southeastern states didn’t create these industries, nor have they stood out for their policies to encourage the adoption of EVs or grid storage. But leaders here saw the opportunity and jumped aboard just as domestic battery manufacturing started to heat up. As a result, the Southeast has become indispensable to the national quest to clean up transportation-related emissions. The arsenal of clean transportation was hidden where few expected it, like lithium buried deep below a lake.
Correction: We’ve updated this article to correct an error in our figure for cleantech manufacturing investment in Georgia.
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