Saturday, June 22, 2024

Yellen and Cooper tout clean energy on tour of Gaston County plant

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited a Bessemer City plant on Thursday to talk about how federal money targeting clean-energy initiatives has boosted manufacturing while helping make America less reliant on foreign countries for energy.

Yellen was accompanied by Gov. Roy Cooper on a tour of the Livent plant that processes lithium hydroxide, a key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries. She credited President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act with helping businesses like Livent grow in places that have been hit hard when legacy industries like textiles faded.

 “Scaling up our domestic manufacturing capacity – particularly in new industries – can help create well-paying, middle-class jobs for Americans across the country. Serving people and places that have too often been left behind,” Yellen says while standing in front of hundreds of one ton bags of lithium hydroxide.

Those lithium hydroxide bags are destined for Austin, Texas, where Tesla manufactures electric batteries for its vehicles and Japan, where Panasonic manufactures batteries for a wide assortment of uses, says Barbara Fochtman, Livent’s chief operations and engineering officer at the plant.

Gov. Roy Cooper and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen listen to a Livent employee during a tour of the Bessemer City plant on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

Livent announced it was doubling its processing capacity in Bessemer City last November. The plant – which has a nearly 75-year history in the Gaston County town – can now process about 15,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide a year – enough to provide batteries for approximately 250,000 electric vehicles, Fochman says.

Livent planned its expansion before the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August 2022, but since its passage, Fochtman says automakers have called stating they want their lithium hydroxide to come from the Bessemer City plant. Livent gets its lithium brine from Argentina.

“You come to work every day, not realizing until you have an event like this, how important your job is,” Fochtman says. She has worked at the plant 25 years, and says Livent focuses on providing lithium so battery-makers don’t have to rely on its product from China.

Last year’s expansion boosted the Philadelphia-based company’s workforce in Bessemer City from about 175 to 250, she says. Future expansions are already in the planning stages, she adds. The Livent plant is the country’s largest processor of lithium hydroxide.

Gaston County Commissioner Bob Hovis says Lithium has been a “model corporate citizen” for his hometown of Bessemer City. He says its workforce has remained steady as the textile companies moved from town. “It’s taken us from then until now to recover,” says Hovis, who was the plant manager of one of the largest textile mills in town when it closed in 1995.

Cooper says federal investments – including those that give tax credits of up to $7,500 for the purchase of electric vehicles – have helped bring jobs to places that have suffered historically from low wages and high unemployment.

“North Carolina is becoming the epicenter for clean energy in this country,” says Cooper. He pointed to Toyota’s plans to invest $13.9 billion and create 5,100 jobs for an EV battery plant in Randolph County as another example.

“We must do our part to fight climate change, but even those who don’t agree with that have to acknowledge the great-paying jobs that the clean-energy economy is bringing to American families, and particularly North Carolina families,” says Cooper.

Livent is not the only company in the area to benefit in the push for more electric vehicles to curb carbon emissions. In September, Charlotte-based Albemarle announced it had received a $90 million grant to expand domestic lithium mining operations in nearby Kings Mountain, which borders Gaston County. That mine has been closed for decades, but Albemarle expects to have it operational again as early as 2026.

Another company, Piedmont Lithium, has been working for several years to open a lithium mine in northwest Gaston County, near the town of Cherryville. That project has faced local opposition. Both Yellen and Cooper told reporters they support lithium mining.

“It’s critical that we have strict environmental guidelines to protect the area, but lithium is critical to moving to a clean-energy economy,” says Cooper.

Gaston County commissioners also have been critical of Piedmont Lithium’s mining plans. The all-Republican board has said it will not make a decision on necessary zoning changes for the project until Piedmont Lithium receives a mining permit from the state.

Hovis says it remains unclear what will happen with Piedmont Lithium’s plans. “My crystal ball is not that good,” he says.

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