Inside a colossal new plant, about 13 football fields long, the employees of SK Battery America are at work 24/7, essential players in the high-stakes early days of a worldwide battle to build the motors of the future.
The sweeping new climate bill just passed in Congress allocates nearly $400 billion over 10 years to encourage the clean energy transition and the growth of factories precisely like this one: A gleaming gray structure, midway through the semirural stretch of Georgia between Atlanta and Greenville, S.C., where the exurbs are encroaching, life is getting more expensive and a job building an electric car doesn’t mean you can afford one, at least not yet.
In green, taupe, teal and navy uniforms color-coded to their specific role — engineer, operator, maintenance, quality control — masked workers shuffle carts filled with half-finished parts between mechanical stations arranged like cavernous grocery aisles.
Supervisors peek at tablet screens, tweaking dials, overseeing the robotic orchestra tucked behind thin, sterile walls of glass. A dizzying range of machines pirouette perfectly around one another, chopping, welding and packaging: an ensemble that turns raw, rhino-size rolls of copper and aluminum coated with nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite into small but mighty packets — battery cells. Each one no longer or heavier than a hardback book.
All told, once packed and charged together and inside a new Ford F-150 Lightning, these lithium-ion batteries can make that all-electric truck, weighing in at over three tons, lurch forward from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just about four seconds.
“Listen, I drove it home last night, it’s badass,” said Cody Cain, the general manager at Billy Cain Ford, the local dealership owned by his father, Billy, which sits one mile away from the battery plant. “It’s an unbelievable vehicle.”
On a spin down the two-lane roadways of northeast Georgia’s Appalachian foothills, a display model of the Ford Lightning whizzes along. The truck wields the force of a 580 horsepower motor with silent ferocity, and zero carbon emissions — indistinguishable from its gas-powered brethren aside from the absence of exhaust pipes and roars from the front grill.
The Lightning, Mr. Cain noted, also doubles as a mobile generator — able to juice up various tools at a work site, recharge your home if the power goes out in a storm, or plug in anything on a camping trip. Great for big families, contractors or coaches, something Mr. Cain, 41, and a former college baseball player, has been himself.
In the near future, the so-called Rust Belt, along with the Deep South, could become the Battery Belt. And the F-150 Lightning, paired with its growing slate of American-made competitors, could offer an all-around win: manufacturing revitalized, gas money saved, and the potential to curb the transportation sector’s leading 27 percent share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A clean energy transition temptingly driven by strong, spacious, all-American vehicles with cultural cachet. A solution without sacrifice. Carrots, not sticks.
The problem is Mr. Cain and other dealers sell cars and trucks to people in the here and now. And right now, he says, “they’re not buying electric because there are none.”
In terms of availability, it’s barely an exaggeration. The global supply chain crisis has hobbled automotive production, hurting the industrywide ramp up in electric vehicles. “We’re still delivering Broncos that we ordered two years ago,” Mr. Cain said, referring to Ford’s new gas-powered rival to the Jeep. “So the same thing is going to happen on this vehicle.”
The good news — that consumer demand for the Lightning is high — is often overwhelmed by the bad. People may have to wait three years for a truck. Another problem: Even if the Lightning were available, Mr. Cain said, “In Jackson County, where we are in Commerce, Georgia, there’s not a lot of people that can afford it.”
The median individual income in Jackson County is $32,051. This past week, Ford announced that prices for the 2023 Lightning will now range from about $47,000 to $97,000 — a jump of $8,500 for some models. That effectively erases much of the purchasing power granted by the fresh tax credit on offer from the government for purchasing a new E.V., worth up to $7,500.
The average price for a new E.V. is more than $66,000 — and up 14 percent on a yearly basis. This puts the electric vehicle transition in an anxious limbo: To pull off a real cultural shift, industry analysts and E.V. enthusiasts say, cars that plug in can’t remain exclusive to the curious and privileged for much longer. They’ll need to be physically and financially accessible enough to as many people as possible — and soon enough to generate the momentum needed to propel them from an experiment to a sustainable norm.
“In the worst time in the world,” Mr. Cain said. “We want to push all of this electric down people’s throat, when there’s no parts.”
In his 18 years managing Billy Cain Ford, Mr. Cain — a father of three and a city councilman in nearby Jefferson, Ga., 15 minutes down the road — typically has seen the car lot filled from front to back, with new and used, small and large. A joint victory for him and those fighting climate change will mean a dealership lot full of more economical E.V.s.
These days, it’s barren. Mr. Cain has just a few vehicles here and there, and a lone Ford Lightning sitting outside, as part of “the Mannequin Program,” he says, “just to show it off.” Not for sale.
The battery business
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, which retains a more than 60 percent share of the U.S. electric vehicle market, has declared that “lithium batteries are the new oil.”
If the analogy holds, that puts Commerce, and the bet the local government has made by luring SK Battery America, the U.S. subsidiary of a South Korean energy conglomerate, in early gold rush territory.
The Georgia factory is expected to produce 21.5 million kilowatt-hours in annual capacity that could power over 430,000 new electric vehicles each year once site construction is fully complete. Last month, Ford sealed an agreement with SK to expand their joint venture, building three battery facilities in Tennessee and Kentucky. The manufacturing facility, which also produces batteries for a Volkswagen E.V., is now up to about 1,900 employees, and is hiring roughly 50 employees a week, at base pay of about $18 an hour, more than twice the state’s minimum wage.
Those jobs are why John Clark Hill, the mayor of Commerce since 2012, helped roll out the red carpet for the plant. A physician with a practice in the county, Dr. Hill sees himself as a steward of the legacy left to him by previous city leaders who bet on growth through infrastructure: the train tracks they put through the middle of town that first made it a business hub, the people who made sure Interstate 85 curved right by the area. According to an offer letter, SK came to Commerce after receiving a $300 million incentive package of tax breaks, grants and cheap property from the state and Jackson County.
“We had other opportunities, but they were all warehousing jobs,” the mayor said. Projects were offering to pay workers $9 or $10 an hour. He decided “not to bite.”
Once a cozy mill town well beyond the outskirts of Atlanta, Commerce is increasingly an industrial hub. Distribution centers — run by Pepsi, Toyota, G.E., and more — now nest off highway exits near diners and exurban cul-de-sacs. As Atlanta continues to boom — its big-city wealth crawling up the I-85 corridor — generations of local families are at risk of being priced out.
“What we were looking for was better jobs — more manufacturing jobs that gave people the opportunity for upward mobility,” Dr. Hill said. “Not a dead-end job, but more important, a job where people can make a living wage: where you have two people working in the business and they can afford a home.”
Despite the mayor’s enthusiasm, the road for SK Battery America has been somewhat rocky since it broke ground in Commerce in 2019.
Last year, the U.S. International Trade Commission ruled that SK had stolen trade secrets from the energy arm of LG. SK filed a motion in response declaring “the Commission’s orders destroy the economic viability of SK’s investment in battery production in Georgia and will rationally and inevitably lead to its abandonment.” That prescribed fate was only narrowly avoided when SK agreed to a $1.8 billion settlement with LG. But it created a suboptimal first impression.
In an interview at the plant, the chief executive of SK Battery America, Jun Yong Jeong — who goes by Timothy for those who find “the pronunciation is difficult” — says that relations with the community have been warm and welcoming, and that he loves Southern cuisine.
But the “abandonment” talk led to bad press that undeniably left some Jackson County residents with reservations about SK’s commitment to the community.
Plenty of people around town also associate the battery plant with the rapid development that has cropped up around it, including the recent shutdown and impending sale of a nearby site owned by the National Hot Rod Association — home to a beloved drag racing track since the 1980s.
Tamara Padgett, 54, would love to make the base wage of $18 an hour at SK, but a previous work injury to her hands has left her partially disabled, precluding her from manufacturing roles. So, while she attempts to rehab, she supports herself by pairing up with her granddaughter to deliver DoorDash orders. She has an up-close view of how Jackson County is faring these days. “The Motel 6 burned down recently, and a lot of people were living there because they couldn’t afford rent,” she said. “People are running out of places to live.”
Ms. Padgett argues “there’s so much negativity toward that plant” because some residents see SK’s mammoth new campus as an emblem of an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new transformation.
That hasn’t stopped people from joining the long lines at job fairs at SK Battery America each Saturday morning.
‘Nothing but opportunity here’
Stepping out of the summer heat and back into the factory’s bright, tall air-conditioned main lobby, the loose band of new SK employees trailing an H.R. representative giving an orientation tour seemed relieved. Mostly young, the humidity outside evident on their faces, they looked intrigued by the tour — and happy to be back inside.
The unemployment rate in Jackson County is near 2 percent. But as other employers complain about labor shortages, hiring at SK, where the base pay adds up to a little over $37,000 a year, has continued apace.
Sitting under the crisp white lights of a conference room in the Georgia facility, Desmond Salmon, 47, a production manager at SK with more than 17 years of auto industry experience, said he was happy to see that, on this given day, about 90 percent of young new recruits going through orientation happened to be Black like him.
“It feels good,” he said. “When people of color find out my position here, they’re shocked. And I tell them, ‘Don’t be, there’s nothing but opportunity here. There’s plenty of room for growth.’”
A company spokeswoman for SK Battery America stated that the hiring numbers do “not include the number of temporary visitors from our parent company” — a reference to the many Korean supervisors at SK brought to the local site, all of whom the company pledges will be replaced by the Georgians they train in the coming years.
Billy Gooch, 40, a team lead in the assembly area, has worked in the manufacturing and automotive industries since he finished a high school apprenticeship program in 1999. The work can be hectic, he says. But the wages drew him.
“Along with that, the benefits are so good here. The health care is a lot — a lot — cheaper than at my previous jobs. That, and they feed us here everyday,” he said, chuckling. He and his wife were able to buy a house in the area before prices surged. Still, they wrestle with costs.
Mr. Gooch began as an entry-level associate at SK but was promoted to his current role within six months. And like many others at the plant, he is aching to have a Ford Lightning of his own.
Is Georgia E.V. country?
Lashonda Johnson, 38, a waitress at the Waffle House just off the I-85 exit for Commerce, is the star of the diner. Everything — plates, mugs, receipts, silverware, and the banter between the kitchen and regulars — revolves around her words, a “What’re you eating this morning, honey?” keeping the whole operation going.
She makes the federal minimum wage for tipped workers, $2.13. So she’s thankful for the loyalty and generosity of her neighborhood customers. “I keep them happy and full and they keep my bills paid,” Ms. Johnson said.
She feels crushed by paying $80 recently for tanks of gas and would welcome the savings of never filling up again. Her cousin has worked shifts down the road at SK Battery America, and she’s read about the new federal tax credits in the climate law. But Ms. Johnson says she’ll believe in the affordability of vehicles like the Ford Lightning when she sees it.
To her, it’s not about what a company or a government says. “It’s about what they’re going to be doing,” she said. “The rich are just trying to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. They’re scamming.”
Skepticism — especially when based on a history of broken government promises — can be hard to break.
Andre Smirnov, an expert test driver who already has a Lightning, understands the frustrations of the moment but believes they will be fleeting. Mr. Smirnov, the managing editor of The Fast Lane Truck, believes it’s just a matter of time before improved battery efficiency, a growing used E.V. market and a surge of competition — from vehicles like the Chevy Silverado E.V. and Tesla’s Cybertruck — puts downward pressure on truck prices. “As they build more they’re going to bring the prices down,” he said.
A lot of class and cultural resentment could build up until then, but Mr. Smirnov doesn’t see that as insurmountable. “The pendulum will swing pretty fast whenever that moment comes,” he said. “Ford’s F-150 Lightning may be the beginning of that swing.”
Still, for now, he said, “A lot of people aren’t happy, and I get it.”
Getting the car isn’t the only hurdle. You need somewhere to charge it. Omar Asensio, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, believes the new incentives could push a breakthrough. But he does not think the current policies do enough to broaden access to infrastructure — making chargers readily available as gas stations for people in rural areas, for example, or for people without driveways.
Mr. Asensio said he was glad the White House planned to use funds from the infrastructure bill signed last year to build a national network of chargers, because that has been shown to be a more cost-effective incentive than subsidizing E.V. sales.
That policy, and the government’s new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which require “an industrywide fleet average” of approximately 49 miles per gallon for 2026 models, all but ensure that Americans will see far more of their neighbors driving cars that plug in rather than fill up, and sooner than some think.
Tailgates of the future
On the first night of the Fourth of July weekend in Commerce, the wide median down the center of town became home to a block party. The tailgates on the back of almost every truck were flipped down — and almost every other truck was a Ford. Friends gathered in lawn chairs or atop coolers on the flatbeds, sharing food and drinks.
The evening, punctuated by the local cover band, the Fly Bettys, ended with a fireworks finale accompanied by “God Bless the USA.”
The hope of SK, Ford, many energy policymakers and pragmatic environmentalists, is that most of the Georgians tailgating for holiday fireworks in the coming years will be hanging on the flatbeds of F-150 Lightnings instead.
Even once the logistics and volume of production are straightened out, the lingering question for Jackson County residents, and Americans, is whether the batteries being made down the road at SK will power vehicles ultimately as accessible as Ford’s Model T. Henry Ford called it a vehicle “for the great multitude,” and it fueled America’s original automotive revolution.
As usual, silver bullets are rare. And as with most major challenges, it helps if a solution involves making something cool.
Maddison Dean, a Jackson County native, was hired early this year by SK for a role in community relations. In April, she gave a presentation about the company to more than a hundred juniors and seniors at Commerce High School, her alma mater. In the auditorium, she gave an overview of electric vehicles, the quickly changing future for automakers and how SK’s operations work.
“I told them, feel free to interrupt me at any point, just raise your hand,” she said. At first, she didn’t have many takers. “You know, especially talking to high school kids, they just kind of glaze over, they’re like, ‘Yeah, whatever, this is an excuse for us to be out of class, but we’re not paying attention.’”
Then, she got to the part where she mentions that SK makes batteries for the Ford F-150 Lightning.
A wave of hands rose into the air.
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