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2022 was a big year for EV battery plants, and 2023 could be even bigger

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It used to be big news when an automaker announced a single new manufacturing plant in the U.S. But this year, automakers announced a tremendous number of factories, especially ones that build the massive batteries for electric vehicles. NPR's Camila Domonoske says we should call this the year of the battery plant announcement. She joins us now. Hey, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so the year of the battery plant announcement, tell us why (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: I know it's not super catchy, but there were genuinely so many of these announcements this year, it became hard to keep track of them all. It's part of the massive pivot that automakers are doing toward electric vehicles. So you have big names like GM and Hyundai. You have battery makers like Panasonic and LG. You've got a bunch of upstart companies that people probably won't recognize the names of. You've got battery companies from China and Japan and Norway, and they are all announcing projects to build batteries in the U.S., including battery assembly lines, the electric vehicle factories put batteries into vehicles, even battery recycling. So the think tank Atlas Public Policy tallied it all up, and for this year, announced just in 2022, there were $73 billion worth of investment in U.S.-based plants.

CHANG: Wow.

DOMONOSKE: Again, just a few years ago, 1 or 2 billion was a huge deal. So, yeah, this is an explosion.

CHANG: An explosion. OK, where exactly are these plants going to be built?

DOMONOSKE: A lot of them are going in the southeast in what people are starting to call the battery belt. It's Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee. But it is actually bigger than that. Tom Taylor is with Atlas Public Policy, the group that tallied this up. He says there are announcements across the country.

TOM TAYLOR: In some states, these are, you know, some of the largest, if not the largest, economic development projects in the state's history.

DOMONOSKE: And so that's true not just in South Carolina, there in that belt, but in Kansas and Indiana.

CHANG: OK, so this all sounds really great (laughter) and exciting. What's the catch here? Is there a catch?

DOMONOSKE: Well, there are kind of two catches. One is these haven't been built yet, right? These are announcements. And it's a lot easier to hit publish on a press release than to actually build these giant factory projects. And just to illustrate that, General Motors CEO Mary Barra - you know, General Motors has a plant that is up and running now in Ohio - she still had to go on the defensive with unhappy investors and explain why it wasn't producing as quickly as expected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY BARRA: Let's step back and recognize that the Ohio plant is the size of 30 football fields and it will employ over 1,000 people. Making sure we had all our people there and trained has taken a little longer than expected.

DOMONOSKE: So, again, this plant did open, still some hiccups. So, you know, any number of CEOs might have taking a little longer than expected speeches to give in the next few years. Never count your batteries until your production line is operational. I think that's how the old saying goes, right?

CHANG: (Laughter).

DOMONOSKE: The second catch here in some people's point of view is the billions of dollars involved include a lot of taxpayer money. States and local governments are throwing incentives at companies to try to attract the projects to get the jobs to their area. And certainly critics say some of them are offering too much money for what they're getting.

CHANG: Well, the federal government's also trying to encourage these projects, right? Like, how much of a role did that play in this burst of investment?

DOMONOSKE: Definitely a factor. Lots of companies have mentioned it. But also some of those incentives were only passed this summer, meaning we should expect those impacts from those incentives to keep playing out well into next year. I mean, maybe I actually jumped the gun in calling 2022 the year of the battery plants announcement. There might be more to come.

CHANG: We'll have to check back in with you at the end of next year. That is NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thank you, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Domonoske
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.