Vice President Kamela Harris flew into Chattanooga in April to herald what she said was a new era of American-based manufacturing and green investments, including the country’s biggest solar panel manufacturing facility that is projected to add 2,500 jobs in Dalton and Cartersville, Georgia.
The $2.5 billion of solar production facilities built and being added in Whitfield and Bartow counties by the South Korean-based QCells are part of what the White House estimates are over $45 billion of private investments made for clean energy, electric vehicle and battery projects in Tennessee and Georgia in the past couple of years. Such projects were spurred, in part, by tax credits and grants authorized under the stimulus and environmental measures pushed by President Biden and his fellow Democrats but criticized by Republicans.
Despite majority opposition among GOP lawmakers in both Tennessee and Georgia to the Inflation Reduction Act and other stimulus measures, the two states are getting a bigger share of the green investments supported by the new federal programs. The White House last week launched a website tracking $470 billion worth of investments in the production of electric vehicles, batteries, computer chips, biotech and clean energy projects supported by the new tax credits or assistance.
Tennessee has 24% more such investments per capita than the rest of the country and Georgia has more than twice as much green investment per capita than the U.S. as a whole.
Tennessee has benefitted more than most states, in part, because it set the table for such investments over the past four decades as the state has grown its automotive industry, according to Middle Tennessee State University political scientist Kent Syler.
“With a mature automotive manufacturing base dating back to Gov. Lamar Alexender recruiting Nissan in 1980, the state was a natural choice,” Syler, a former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, said in an email last week. “The Biden funding made things happen at a faster pace.”
With Ford Motor Co. planning a $5.6 billion EV and battery facility near Memphis, Tennessee will be one of just three states to have four different major automakers assembling cars and trucks within its borders with electric vehicles already being made at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, at the General Motors facility in Spring Hill and at the Nissan plant in Smyrna.
Jade Byers, a spokesperson for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, said the governor “has made strategic infrastructure and workforce investments to prepare our state for continued economic growth,” using federal assistance for road, sewer and broadband improvements and creating worker training programs and even a $50 million Nuclear Fund to recruit more nuclear power companies to Tennessee.
Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, a former real estate developer, has also tried to use the new incentives to recruit electric vehicle manufacturers and battery companies to the Peach State.
In his first inaugural address, Kemp vowed that by the end of his new term, Georgia would be “the electric mobility capital of America.” Georgia has attracted over $30 billion of new green energy investments, including three new electric vehicle plants by Hyundai and Rivian and a $2.6 billion battery plant by Freyr Battery and Koch Industries.
Republicans who denounced Biden’s economic and environmental policies as both inflationary and a threat to energy independence have welcomed the new green investments.
“I support all kinds of energy,” said U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, (R-Ga.) who called QCells investment in her district “fantastic.”
Greene, a frequent critic of the White House who has called for the impeachment of Joe Biden, was noticeably absent during the announcement by Vice President Harris that QCells had landed the biggest contract in U.S. history to build panels for more community solar projects. Aided by new federal tax credits and other incentives, Summit Ridge Energy said it plans to buy 2.5 million solar panels from Qcells over the next four years to build community solar projects in Illinois, Maryland, Maine, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“These credits were absolutely critical to this expansion by Qcells,” Michael Carr, director of Solar Energy Manufacturers for America, said during Vice President Harri’s visit to Dalton.
Supporters of the new green energy incentives insist they are paying off for Southern states.
“In the months since the landmark clean energy policies in the Inflation Reduction Act became law, the private sector has been racing forward with massive investments to build our clean energy future,” Jonathan Levenshus, director of Federal Energy Campaigns at the Sierra Club, said in an emailed statement last week. “New manufacturing means new, family-sustaining jobs for hard-working Americans, including here in Tennessee and North Georgia with solar, batteries and electric vehicles. In fact, clean energy companies have announced or moved forward with projects accounting for more than 142,000 new clean energy jobs for electricians, mechanics, construction workers, technicians, support staff, and many others as a result of these investments.”
But Greene and other Republicans have criticized Democrats for trying to phase out the use of what they say are abundant fossil fuel supplies in the United States, pushing up energy prices and potentially creating energy shortages.
“Dems’ push for a far-left green new deal energy agenda risks causing blackouts and bankruptcy in our country,” U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty said in a tweet last week. “We need an all-of-the-above energy approach that facilitates energy security, economic security and national security.”
Chuck Laine, president of the Tennessee Mining Association, said the state’s coal industry has shrunk as utilities have replaced coal-fired generation with other power sources and environmental rules have pushed up the cost of mining and burning coal.
“The Obama-Biden administration declared war on coal,” Laine said in a telephone interview.
Laine said the last Tennesee underground mine shut down a few years ago and surface mining is also largely idled at current coal prices in Tennessee. The Tennessee Valley Authority plans to phase out the last of its coal power plants by 2035.
TVA has turned more to natural gas, but stricter gas pipeline and pollution controls have also limited some gas generation, which environmentalists have urged TVA to also abandon to limit all of its greenhouse cases.
In a speech on the Senate floor when the White House proposed its spending plans, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn called Biden’s infrastructure plan “a boondoggle” that doesn’t fix the key needs in Tennessee.
“His big talk on Green New Deal programs got us the boondoggle of an infrastructure package that all but ignores roads, bridges, and broadband,” Blackburn said. “They turned away from those needs. They decided to throw billions of dollars at the environmental lobby to make it happy.”
Blackburn blamed Biden’s spending programs for inflating the federal deficit.
“Our children and grandchildren cannot afford the insurmountable debt we are on track to leave them,” Blackburn said in a statement last week.
At last week’s full cabinet meeting, Biden sought to draw public attention to the new investments made during his term in the White House.
Following $1.9 trillion in pandemic relief, Biden signed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. He also secured more than $250 billion to invest in computer chip production and scientific research and created new tax incentives for renewable energy sources that are worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
“‘Investing in America’ is more than just a slogan,” Biden said Tuesday. “For the first time, America is actually investing in itself, beginning to pay off.”
Natalie Quillian, deputy White House chief of staff, said the website shows that Biden’s agenda is “underway and working.”
“We want people to be able to see what’s happening in their communities,” Quillian said.
U.S. adults have generally given Biden poor reviews on his economic leadership. Just 33% approve of how the president has handled the economy, according to a May survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. High inflation coming out of the pandemic has eroded confidence in Biden’s economic stewardship, overshadowing the 3.7% unemployment rate and more than 13 million jobs added during his presidency.
In the Chattanooga area, the White House reports more than $4 billion of private investments in solar, battery and new clean energy products have been announced in the past two years, projected to add more than 4,000 new jobs.
Investment: $1 billion
Investment: $200 million
Company: Piedmont Lithium
Investment: $582 million
Investment: $100 million
— Cartervsille, Georgia
Company: Hanwha Qcells
Investment: $2.5 billion
MAJOR PUBLIC INVESTMENTS
Among the major projects in Chattanooga funded by the American Rescue Plan, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, CHIPS and Science Act, and Inflation Reduction Act have been:
— Wilcox Boulevard Bridge river to ridge mobility project
Federal funding: $25 million
— U.S. Highway 127 corridor
Location: Dunlap, Tennessee
Federal funding: $14.6 million
— EPA lead cleanup
Location: Southside Chattanooga
Federal funding: $12.3 million
— Department of Transportation aid for airport
Location: Lovell Field in Chattanooga
Federal funding: $5 million for the terminal program and $3. million for an infrastructure grant
— Corps of Engineers flood control project at Mouse Creek
Location: Cleveland, Tennessee
Federal funding: $2.5 million
— East Brainerd Road bridge over CSX rail line
Federal funding: $2.6 million
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.