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In Gaston County, U.S. Treasury chief Yellen points to emerging 'battery belt' powering EVs

Janet Yellen in Gaston County NC 11/30/23
David Boraks
/
WFAE
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks at Livent Corp.'s lithium hydroxide processing plant in Bessemer City Thursday.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited Gaston County Thursday to highlight the Biden administration's efforts to rebuild U.S. manufacturing, shift to climate-friendly energy and bring jobs to underserved and rural areas.

Yellen and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper toured Livent Corp.'s lithium processing plant in Bessemer City, about 30 miles west of Charlotte. The plant, with more than 200 employees, makes lithium hydroxide for electric vehicle batteries. Last year, Livent expanded the plant by 50%, preparing for growth in EV sales spurred by incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act.

In remarks after the tour, Yellen said the IRA and administration policies are rebuilding U.S. manufacturing and creating jobs.

"Investments are also flowing to where they are most needed. Eighty-six percent of IRA-related investments have been in counties with below-average college graduation rates," Yellen said.

Yellen said federal policies are helping to bring a wave of electric vehicle and EV-related factories nationwide.

"In just the first year after the passage of the IRA, companies announced plans to build 83 clean energy manufacturing facilities across the country. We’re seeing the emergence of a battery belt across the Midwest and South," she said.

She said the administration's efforts are also broadening economic opportunity and addressing climate change.

Yellen's visit gave Cooper a chance to show his support for Biden's climate policies — and his own.

"North Carolina is becoming the epicenter for clean energy in this country," Cooper said. "We're now requiring our power sector, which produces our electricity, of course, to reduce carbon emissions 70% by 2030, and to get to carbon zero by 2050."

He also said the state has recruited clean transportation companies, "from cars to trucks to jet airliners, and even boats, and the great-paying jobs that come from manufacturing them."

That includes Toyota's $13.9 billion investment in battery manufacturing operations in Randolph County, south of Greensboro, as well as many other EV- and battery-related businesses.

"All of this momentum is being supercharged, by the Inflation Reduction Act, the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the American Rescue Plan, all pushed by the Biden-Harris administration," Cooper said.

Gov. Roy Cooper at Livent Corp. in Bessemer City NC 11/30/23
David Boraks
Gov. Roy Cooper speaks about the Inflation Reduction Act, climate change and jobs at Livent Corp.'s Bessemer City lithium plant Thursday.

As for North Carolina, Cooper touted the state's 2021 bipartisan energy reform law that requires the state's main electricity supplier, Duke Energy, to slash carbon emissions from electricity generation.

But in response to a question after the program at Livent, Cooper criticized Duke, saying the company needs to speed up its transition to clean energy to help meet North Carolina's climate goals.

"We need to meet this goal of getting a 70% reduction by 2030 in carbon emissions, and by 2050 to get to carbon zero. And they need to do more investment in renewable energy, like solar and wind. They're making progress, but it needs to go faster," Cooper said.

The visit to Gaston County put the spotlight on a county that is poised to play a critical role in development of the electric vehicle industry. Transportation is the nation's largest source of the pollution that causes global warming, and both Biden and Cooper are pushing a rapid shift to electric vehicles.

Livent's Bessemer City factory is the nation's largest lithium hydroxide processing plant. Nearby in Kings Mountain, Albemarle Corp. plans to reopen an old lithium mine. And Belmont-based Piedmont Lithium is seeking approvals to open a new lithium mine and processing plant near Cherryville.

The Piedmont Lithium project is awaiting a state mining permit and has yet to seek local zoning approval. Some residents in north Gaston County are hoping the county commission will reject the project. They say it would damage the environment and destroy their quality of life.

A New York Times reporter asked Yellen and Cooper about that tension after Thursday's speeches. Both leaders said they support new lithium mining, with environmental controls.

"It's critical that we have strict environmental guidelines to protect the area," Cooper said. "But lithium is critical to move into a clean energy economy, and overall, cleaning up the environment. So I am supportive of this."

He also said the industry creates new jobs.

Yellen and Cooper also visited Gaston College Tuesday for a discussion with college officials, professors and students.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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