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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

NC trend: North Carolina seeks a front-row slot as the automotive industry electrifies

It has been a year since Wake Technical Community College dedicated the $42 million Hendrick Center for Automotive Excellence in north Wake County. Since then, Wake Tech has tripled the number of students in its automotive systems technology program and added a new degree program in collision repair.

In March, the college received a $939,041 federal grant to help jump start the Hendrick Center’s electric vehicle training program. It was part of the $1.7 trillion spending bill signed by President Joe Biden in December.

The grant comes amid an obvious transformation of the economy from gas-powered cars and trucks to electric vehicles. Electric cars have gone from being something exotic to something that requires trained technicians to service. The electric economy is evolving in places like the northern Wake County campus and throughout North Carolina. If the shift to electrics goes fast, a lot of work needs to be done fast. 

The federal government’s target is for half of all vehicles sold in 2030 to be battery electric, plug-in hybrids or fuel-cell electrics. Gov. Roy Cooper’s goal is to have 1.25 million zero-emission vehicles in North Carolina by 2030. At the start of this year, there were about 54,000 zero-emission vehicles, including 38,400 electrics, and 15,600 plug-in hybrids, according to state registration data. Hitting Cooper’s target will require big changes on car lots around the state.

But inventories are increasing as car manufacturers scramble to roll out EVs with more millennials hitting peak earning and family-formation years. Gen Z’s are right behind. Many folks may be driving their last gasoline car right now. That has everyone’s attention in car factories, dealerships, oil-change shops, convenience stores and state highway departments fueled by gas taxes.

North Carolina is emerging as a center of electric-vehicle technology. Toyota is building a $3.8 billion battery plant near Greensboro in a partnership with Panasonic. Siemens is creating charging stations for electric buses and other large vehicles in Wendell, in Eastern Wake County. Kempower, a Finland-based company, plans a fast-charger manufacturing facility in Durham.

North Carolina is also a key source of lithium, a metal that has been referred to as “the new white gold” because of its use in EV batteries, says Louis Martin-Vega, engineering dean at N.C. State University. “That’s one of the reasons that Albemarle Corp. is building a research and technology park in Charlotte,” he says.

Albemarle also plans to reopen a Cleveland County mine with lithium deposits that has been closed since 1988. Likewise, Belmont-based Piedmont Lithium is seeking regulatory approval to operate a lithium mine and processing plant in Gaston County, 30 miles west of Charlotte. 

“North Carolina’s on the leading edge of this,” Martin-Vega notes.

The path to a transformed economy is full of potholes, to be sure. In March, Vietnam-based VinFast said it was delaying the start of electric-vehicle production at its proposed plant in Chatham County to 2025, a year later than previously announced. In an email to Chatham County Economic Development, VinFast said “this is the result of administrative delays” and “we remain fully committed to the development of our first U.S. production facility in North Carolina.”

The six-year-old company has said it expects to produce about 150,000 SUVs a year at the factory for North American customers, eventually employing as many as 7,500 people and entailing an investment of $4 billion.        

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