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Rivian announcement heralds the dawn of the electric South

By Tom Baxter

At the end of one year and the beginning of another, two big stories — the prolonged pandemic and the protracted battle over ballots — dominate the news. But the story of the decade is the one that will be taking shape on a huge site on I-20 between Social Circle and Madison.

Rivian’s decision to build a $5 billion electric truck plant on the site is a very big deal for Georgia and a pivotal moment in the evolution of auto manufacturing in the South. But the plant is the physical manifestation of a much bigger story: the end, for all rights and purposes, of the debate over whether climate change is real, and the dawn of an era of figuring out what to do about it.

Sure, there will continue to be debates over the science, and how much humans really have to do with the melting icecaps. But there’s little doubt left that the icecaps are, indeed, melting.

Some politicians will continue to score points with climate skepticism. But when the Republican governors of red states put together huge economic packages to land a plant that makes electric trucks, the real argument is over and a new reality has set in.

Every governor’s office in the South is alive with the initials EV, as they scramble to land a piece of an electric vehicle manufacturing system being created to replace the combustion engine. In Tennessee, General Motors is investing $2 billion to convert its Spring Hill plant to manufacture electric vehicles. A manufacturer of commercial electric vehicles, Cenntro Automotive, is locating its first U.S. plant in Jacksonville, Fla.

Similar developments are taking shape across the region. Development officials use buzzwords like “ecosystem” and “ecology” to describe the network of satellite manufacturers which grown up around, and sometimes between auto plants. That’s the reason you’ll sometimes see billboards in Korean on the interstate between West Point (Kia) and Montgomery (Hyundai).

Batteries are a vital part of the EV ecology, and the South Korean battery maker SK Innovations, which is building two side-by-side plants in Jackson County, is going to be a major player in the evolving electric South. In the biggest EV development announced so far, Ford and SK Innovations have announced plans to spend $11.4 billion on two sites in Tennessee and Kentucky which will manufacture vehicles and batteries.

You could put the words “huge” or “enormous” in front of all these announced projects. They will bring thousands of skilled jobs to areas that have lost ground over the past couple of decades, changing the local economy and potentially the politics.

Thirty or forty years ago, governors like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Carroll Campbell of South Carolina courted automobile manufacturers from Japan and Germany to give their states a toehold in the industry. Rivian, the company Gov. Brian Kemp successfully wooed, is a California startup with several big corporate backers, including Amazon, which owns 20 percent of the company, Ford (12 percent) and Cox Enterprises (4.7 percent). It encourages its employees to form “Belonging Resource Groups” and has pledged that the Georgia plant will be carbon neutral. To say the least, the corporate culture is a long way from Tobacco Road.

The EV ecosystem is only one of the ways this bigger story about climate change will be manifested. This is likely to be a record growth year for just about every category of renewable energy. Supply chain problems are slowing the construction of new solar installations, but the overall trend is accelerating. By many measures, the South has lagged other regions of the country in the development of renewables, but over the next decade that could change dramatically.

How much difference these profit-driven corporate responses can make in reducing carbon emissions, remains to be seen, although the investment is enormous and proceeding with some urgency. How quickly governments around the world, including our own, catch up with the corporate response is also unclear.

What we can say is that across much of the South, the lifeline to a stable economy is going to come from a technology few people at the beginning of the century would have guessed was coming so quickly, in response to a crisis some people still don’t believe is real.

 

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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