CLEVELAND, Tenn. — America only has capacity to produce a fraction of a key component for batteries that automakers will need to power the surge of electric vehicles slated to hit the streets this decade, an official for a manufacturer said.
But Piedmont Lithium's planned $600 million plant in Southeast Tennessee is on track for a 2026 startup to help in the production of 600,000 batteries annually, said Malissa Gordon, the company's vice president for government relations.
"We like the proximity to the battery belt," she said late last month at an EV battery conference in Cleveland, Tennessee, citing the geographical name where an array of companies are locating to supply automakers, including Volkswagen in Chattanooga.
North Carolina-based Piedmont Lithium plans to create about 120 jobs at the manufacturing facility in Etowah, where it will produce lithium hydroxide. The $600 million injection into the North Etowah Industrial Park is believed to be McMinn County's largest-ever single investment with the facility to be known as Tennessee Lithium.
Piedmont plans to start moving dirt soon, Gordon said, and it has hired its first two employees.
"We want to make sure we hire local," she said. "We're working with community colleges and universities."
The company will need plant technicians, logistics hires and administrators, Gordon said.
She said making lithium hydroxide is basically a chemical process. Piedmont's product will be sent to another company to package and then ultimately shipped to auto companies making EVs, Gordon said.
Experts are forecasting that EV sales may reach 12.5% in 2025 and then rise to 20% in 2030. President Joe Biden has floated a goal of 50% by 2030, more than doubling expectations.
John Boyd, a principal in The Boyd Co., said when it comes to advanced manufacturing, "EV and batteries is really where it's at right now."
Boyd, whose company helps businesses find production sites, said in a recent interview that Piedmont Lithium by some measures will be the largest such plant in North America.
"Certainly one of the largest," he said.
Automakers want to source materials that go into EV production in North America to take advantage of federal incentives passed by Congress, Boyd said.
His company recently chose the Chattanooga area as one of the three best locations in the United States to attract new EV equipment manufacturing and jobs. The area has the lowest annual operating cost among 30 sites nationally poised to attract such new production, according to The Boyd Co.
Gordon said that while Piedmont will play a major role in supplying the EV sector, other similar production facilities are needed to meet the expected demand.
"We'll need more Piedmonts that have capacity to produce in the U.S.," she said. "We're doing our part."
China makes 80% of lithium hydroxide, Gordon said.
"To meet global demand, the lithium supply has to increase 40-fold," she said.
Piedmont late last year was selected for a $141.7-million U.S. Department of Energy grant that is expected to accelerate the Etowah project.
In Chattanooga, Australian-based Novonix, the maker of synthetic graphite used in lithium-ion batteries, plans to eventually invest about $160 million and employ 300 workers at the former Alstom turbine-manufacturing plant on Riverfront Parkway.
Novonix also is looking at building another plant to produce 30,000 tons of synthetic graphite and employ 1,000 more workers. To aid that effort, Novonix won approval for $150 million in project funding from the Department of Energy.
Joda Thongnopnua, chief of staff for Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, said late last year during a tour of the Novonix Riverfront Parkway plant that "we're fighting hard" for the second factory.