In clean energy transition, Georgia is at the tip of the spear

Federal climate law, state’s aggressive recruitment of green companies behind jobs boom
The IONIQ Concept Seven was on display Tuesday, October 25, 2022 during a Hyundai community celebration at Savannah's Enmarket Arena.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Mornin

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Mornin

The IONIQ Concept Seven was on display Tuesday, October 25, 2022 during a Hyundai community celebration at Savannah's Enmarket Arena.

Last August, as a state legislative committee pondered how to prepare for the flood of electric vehicles expected on Georgia roads in the coming years, the state’s top economic development officer came to deliver an important message.

Pat Wilson, just returned from meetings in South Korea with suppliers for Hyundai’s $5.5 billion Bryan County “Metaplant,” ticked through the EV and battery companies that have chosen to build factories in Georgia — a list that has grown in the five months since.

While eager to share the accomplishments, Wilson also tried to convey the big picture to legislators: A seismic shift in the ways people move and get their electricity is well underway, with enormous economic implications in Georgia and beyond.

“This transformation is happening in manufacturing and it’s at a level that we’ve probably never seen since the Industrial Revolution,” said Wilson, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

At its core, that transition is about turning a global economy based on fossil fuels into one powered by cleaner sources, like wind and solar. And as it unfolds, Georgia is as well-positioned as any state to ride the wave.

Earlier this month, the Korean solar giant Qcells became the latest manufacturer to locate or expand in the Peach State, announcing an investment of $2.5 billion to more than double its Georgia production footprint. In all, green sector companies have announced 35 projects in Georgia, building everything from EVs to e-bikes and the batteries that power them and pledged to create at least 28,000 jobs, the governor’s office has said.

Factories from EV makers Hyundai and Rivian and an announced Hyundai-SK On battery plant rank among the biggest jobs deals in Georgia history. Climate-friendly projects are not just hot in Georgia: Globally, investments in the clean energy transition hit $1.1 trillion in 2022, rivaling spending on fossil fuel production for the first time, according to analysis by the research firm BloombergNEF.

Gov. Brian Kemp has signaled that the state’s green development boom is likely far from over.

In his second-term inaugural address this month, he staked a legacy-defining goal to make Georgia the “electric mobility capital of America.” Days later, Kemp traveled to the exclusive World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to pitch Georgia to foreign heads of states and corporate chieftains, with a focus on the state’s growing role as a hub of alternative energy innovation.

As an issue, climate change did not figure into either of Kemp’s gubernatorial campaigns. And publicly, he does not mention that many of the companies investing in Georgia are building products meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit climate change — a reality that’s been denied by other Republicans.

Nevertheless, Kemp’s embrace of clean energy is an apparent recognition of the economic opportunity it presents, one that’s been preached by Georgia’s two U.S. senators and other Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden.

December 16, 2021 Atlanta - Jimmy Knauf EVP of Facilities at Rivian, smiles as he shows Rivian R1T electric truck to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (left) and First Lady Marty Kemp (second from left) during a press conference at Liberty Plaza across from the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, December 16, 2021. Electric vehicle maker Rivian on Thursday confirmed its plans to build a $5 billion assembly plant and battery factory in Georgia, which Gov. Brian Kemp called Òthe largest single economic development project ever in this stateÕs history.Ó (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

U.S. Sen Jon Ossoff said he doesn’t think the political dynamics driving clean energy development in the state are complicated.

“I think there’s broad bipartisan support in Georgia ... for securing energy independence, for ensuring that there is a robust supply of affordable energy that’s not destroying our environment,” Ossoff said on the heels of Qcells’ expansion announcement. “And I think there’s very broad excitement about the role that Georgia can play in leading the development of an industry that can supply the products necessary for us to achieve those goals.”

‘The market likes Georgia’

Georgia’s emergence as a clean energy hub has been fueled by a governor willing to aggressively court companies and lure them to the state with billions of dollars in state and local incentives. But it has also been aided by a new federal climate law that the state’s two Democratic senators helped pass last year.

Kemp helped seal the deal for several green energy projects, including the Hyundai and Rivian EV plants, the Hyundai-SK On battery facility and Qcells’ solar panel factories. The governor and his economic development team, led by Wilson, have offered tax breaks, infrastructure and free land to entice companies to choose Georgia over other states.

Some have criticized those incentive packages as unnecessary handouts that harm local governments, but there appears to be public support behind the use of inducements to grow clean energy manufacturing.

A University of Georgia poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows a broad majority of Georgians back the state’s effort to develop an electric vehicle industry. Nearly two-thirds of voters either “strongly” or “somewhat” support Georgia’s practice of using incentives to turn Georgia into an EV hub.

Another one-third oppose the strategy, while 6% say they don’t know. The supporters include about 80% of Democrats, a slim majority of independents and roughly half of Republicans. On the flip side, 44% of GOP voters oppose Georgia’s push to develop the EV business compared to just 16% of Democrats.

Kemp says positioning Georgia as a haven for clean energy is a shrewd long-term economic approach — not an opportunistic political one.

“Some of the most conservative people I know are great stewards of the environment. Timberland owners — I’m one of them. Farmers – I’m one of them,” he said in an interview from Davos.

“I’m fulfilling a promise I made for people to have a good job where they grew up, to have good opportunities for their kids and their grandkids. And the people we’ve been dealing with at the local level — even in Republican-led counties — have been very supportive of it.”

So why does he think that deep-red areas are so receptive to green employers — aside from the promise of more high-paying jobs in their communities?

“It’s because we’re not trying to push this in any regard,” Kemp said. “We’re not trying to mandate it like a lot of other people are, or manipulate the market, or treat one sector different than the other like they do in Washington. We’re just letting the market work — and the market likes Georgia.”

“I think there’s broad bipartisan support in Georgia ... for securing energy independence, for ensuring that there is a robust supply of affordable energy that’s not destroying our environment,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff.  (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Supercharging clean energy spending

Ossoff has also made attracting green jobs a priority of his first term in office, including his role in helping to broker a deal that paved the way for the $2.6 billion SK Battery plant in Commerce.

In an interview, the Democrat pointed to his role in writing significant new solar provisions that were tucked into the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the federal overhaul that aims to slow climate change with a range of tax incentives and new spending. The votes of Ossoff and fellow Democratic U.S. senator, Raphael Warnock, were key to the bill’s passage in a narrowly divided upper chamber last year.

The IRA provides $10 billion in tax credits for building new solar manufacturing facilities, plus billions more for manufacturers to make components for solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines in the U.S., among a host of other clean energy incentives. Qcells said the law helped spur its Georgia expansion.

Views of Qcells solar manufacturing facility in Dalton, Ga. as seen on Tuesday, January 10, 2023.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

“Qcells’ investments across the full solar value chain follow the passage of the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act within the Inflation Reduction Act,” the company said in a release. “This new investment on the federal level is critical to providing certainty for investors to go bold on clean energy.”

Kemp’s new $32.5 billion budget includes money for training, infrastructure and worker housing around Georgia’s new plants. But developing a workforce to fill the thousands of jobs that will be created remains a challenge.

“What I hear from executives who are considering siting new facilities in Georgia is that the workforce, of course, is a key concern. And many of those skilled jobs at the leading edge of advanced manufacturing don’t require a four-year college degree,” Ossoff said.

Emissions tick up ... again

Scientists say that to avoid the worst effects of climate change, humans must rapidly reduce their emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

In the long-term, the clean energy boom spurred by Biden’s climate law is expected to accelerate the drawdown of U.S. emissions, according to a report published last year by the data analytics firm Rhodium Group.

But recent evidence suggests that the U.S. is still not moving fast enough.

A preliminary analysis also published this month by Rhodium Group found that U.S. emissions grew 1.3% in 2022, increasing for the second straight year, but remaining just below pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, federal data shows 2022 was the sixth hottest year on record and that the last nine years were the nine warmest in 143 years of U.S. government record-keeping.

Clean energy manufacturing is already set to boom in Georgia, but Ossoff said the recent temperature and emissions figures suggest even more expansion could be on the horizon as countries scramble to achieve their climate goals.

“Economies around the world are racing to transition to cleaner and more renewable forms of energy production,” Ossoff said. “That’s one of the reasons that there is skyrocketing demand for these products that will be produced right here in Georgia.”


Energy transition brings big investments to Georgia

Electric mobility and renewable energy companies dominate the list of major recent economic development projects.

CompanyAmount investedJobs promisedProject location
Hyundai Motor Group$5.54 billion8,100Bryan County
Rivian$5 billion7,500Morgan and Walton counties
Hyundai-SK On$4 to $5 billion3,500Bartow County
Qcells$2.5 billion2,500Bartow and Whitfield counties
Freyr Battery$2.57 billion724Coweta County

Notes of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/.

Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also owns about a 4% stake in Rivian and supplies services to the company. Sandy Schwartz, a Cox executive who oversees the AJC, is on Rivian’s board of directors and holds stock personally. He does not take part in the AJC’s coverage of Rivian.

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