Volkswagen, Novonix, others electrify Tennessee's economy as they invest in electric vehicles, batteries

Staff file photo / A Volkswagen employee checks out vehicles moving down the assembly line at the company's Chattanooga assembly plant.

The founder of battery materials maker Novonix said more electric vehicles and energy storage are inevitably coming to the market, and the Tennessee area is nicely poised to benefit.

"The Southeast corridor and Tennessee have done a phenomenal job in bringing battery cell manufacturers and electric vehicle opportunities to the area," said Chris Burns, chief executive of Novonix, which is retrofitting an existing plant in Chattanooga in a $160 million project.

Automakers Volkswagen, General Motors, Ford and Nissan are heavily investing in EV production in Tennessee. Also, battery producers SK Innovation, LG Chem, Microvast and others are plowing billions of dollars into new plants in the Volunteer State, Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky.

Nova Scotia-based Novonix, which makes high-performing synthetic graphite used for batteries, is pointing to its new Chattanooga plant at the former Alstom manufacturing site as one of the first in North America to produce the material in large quantities.

Company officials, who plan to start production at the plant next year and ultimately employ 300 people, also are looking at a potential greenfield site for a possible 1,000-worker facility, Burns said.

"Tennessee continues to look as an incredibly attractive place to expand the business and we're looking at several jurisdictions," he said in a recent phone interview.

Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant is gearing up for production of its ID.4 SUV in the third quarter of 2022 as it moves toward hiring 1,000 more workers at the factory in connection with its EV offensive.

New VW plant CEO Chris Glover is tasked with leading the plant's transformation and push toward electric vehicles. He follows Tom du Plessis, who will retire at the end of the year after overseeing the 4,000-worker factory for more than two years and shepherding an $800 million expansion for EVs.

"With Chattanooga now focusing on the next generation of automobile assembly with electric vehicles, it is a privilege to work with a world-class team and to help in shaping and securing this great future for Volkswagen and our factory in the state of Tennessee," Glover said.

Glover, a veteran of VW for more than 30 years who takes the wheel of the local plant on Jan. 1, was executive vice president at Volkswagen of Mexico and responsible for production and logistics.

Scott Keogh, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, said VW's expansion in Tennessee is critical to a long-term strategy of EV leadership by the German automaker.

"As we ramp up for localized assembly of the ID.4, Chris' extensive background in production planning will move that strategy - and this industry - forward," Keogh said.

Already, EV suppliers are readying for the manufacture of components for the ID.4.

Sese Industrial Services, a company that will assemble electric vehicle axle components for Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant, is investing $42 million into a new facility that will employ 240 people.

Sese's 300,000-square-foot axle assembly plant is located at 6153 Hickory Valley Road at Enterprise South industrial park not far from Volkswagen Chattanooga.

Burns said he's interested in watching how EVs will evolve in the coming years.

"They're taking an industry from practically nothing to trying to become one of the most important sectors of the economy," he said. "They're trying to do that in a few years. There are very aggressive targets for EV sales."

Contact Mike Pare at [email protected] or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.