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Luring larger load to Lordstown

Speculation arises as GM / LG Chem considers 2nd battery-cell plant in US

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Work continues on the massive Ultium Cells LLC plant on Tod Avenue SW in Lordstown. The joint venture of General Motors and South Korea’s LG Chem that is building the $2.3 billion facility is considering another next-generation battery factory within the United States to supply cells for GM vehicles.

Why not Lordstown?

That’s the question asked of some economic development leaders after news broke Thursday that General Motors and South Korea’s LG Chem — a joint venture partnership already building a $2.3 billion electric vehicle battery-cell plant in Lordstown — are considering a second next-gen battery factory in the U.S.

“It might be easier to expand a current plant than to build a brand new one,” said Rick Stockburger, president / CEO of BRITE Energy Innovators in Warren, the state’s only energy storage and clean energy startup incubator.

The Ultium Cells LLC plant is being constructed on 158 acres on Tod Avenue SW that General Motors purchased in March 2020. It’s adjacent to the automaker’s former assembly plant.

Last November, Ultium Cells acquired another nearby 144.2 acres — 45.6 acres on Hallock Young Road and 98.6 acres on Tod Avenue SW — that GM spokesman Dan Flores then said was purchased to support utility placement for the facility.

Beyond that, “it provides us flexibility as well, but I can’t really define what flexibility means at this point in time,” Flores said, then tamping down speculation of plant expansion.

“I don’t want to create a bunch of speculation that we are going to double the plant, but certainly 144 acres is a significant plot of property. But at this point in time, I have not heard of any plans to expand what hasn’t even opened yet,” Flores said. “Having the property increases our flexibility so we would have options in the future if needed, but I don’t want to create speculation (on) something that isn’t there.”

SUPPLY

Ultium Cells will supply battery cells for several GM electric vehicle models, including the GMC Hummer, Cadillac Lyriq and Cruise Origin — GM’s electric driverless vehicle.

Flores did not say Thursday where the company is looking, but one potential landing spot is near GM’s Spring Hill, Tenn., factory complex, which is one of three sites the company has designated to build electric vehicles.

The companies hope to have a decision on a site in the first half of the year.

Ultium Cells is fairly close to GM’s two other designated electric vehicle plants, one in Detroit and the other north of the city in Orion, Mich. LG Chem already has a battery-cell plant in Holland, Mich., that supplies power to the Chevrolet Bolt hatchback and the new Bolt electric SUV.

GM is likely to need far more battery capacity if it’s able to deliver on a goal of converting all of its new passenger vehicles from internal combustion engines to electricity by 2035.

But its venture is risky, at least based on U.S. electric vehicle sales. Last year full battery electric vehicles accounted for only 2 percent of the U.S. market of 14.6 million in new vehicle sales. Automakers, however, are set to roll out 22 new electric models this year and are banking on wider consumer acceptance.

The consulting firm LMC Automotive predicts U.S. battery-powered vehicle sales will hit more than 1 million per year starting in 2023, reaching over 4 million by 2030.

WORTH EXPLORING

Stockburger and Sarah Boyarko, chief operating officer of the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber, said the potential of a second plant or expansion in Lordstown is worth exploring.

“Naturally, any opportunity for additional significant investment or more investment in our market is always worth going after or always worth having the conversation,” Boyarko said. “When you review some of the media that has been out there already, there’s a lot of conversation around some other locations. Tennessee was mentioned. They’ve got a list already in front of them on the site selection side of things.”

Said Stockburger, “It’s an amazing opportunity for us if we can be in the game for that, but it’s a tactical fight.”

That includes considerable local commitments to an electric, carbon-free future and workforce and skills training to provide a competent workforce, Stockburger said.

Having a business-friendly climate is another driver that attracts development.

“Businesses just like people are creatures of habit in a certain sense,” said Boyarko, adding that’s why Tennessee is being mentioned as in the mix because of GM’s presence there.

“It’s always a good exercise, and it’s always a positive to go after any amount of investment or any opportunity that you can,” she said.

TRADE RULING

A federal regulatory decision in February could be a boost to the local plant. Since the U.S. International Trade Commission ruling against LG Chem competitor SK Innovations, also of South Korea, Stockburger said he’s advocated the community press Ultium Cells to increase the size of the plant.

What the ruling essentially does is eliminate SK Innovation as competition of LG Chem.

The trade commission ruled SK Innovation stole 22 trade secrets from LG Energy Solution, a subsidiary of LG Chem, and the company should be barred from importing, making or selling batteries in the U.S. for 10 years, except in limited circumstances with Ford and Volkswagen.

“In some ways, I think it makes other car companies that are thinking of building hybrids or electric vehicles maybe think more about getting close to the Lordstown facility because it looks like into the future there will be more stability with that plant than with SK Innovations,” Paul Sracic, political science professor at Youngstown State University, said.

The White House has been asked to review the ruling by Georgia’s governor, who said it threatened a $2.6 billion electric vehicle battery plant in that state.

UTILITY GROWTH

To support the rapidly growing electric vehicle industry in Lordstown led in part by Ultium Cells, FirstEnergy and Dominion Energy Ohio are making investments to improve and expand their utility services.

FirstEnergy in January announced a more than $31 million, two-phase project to provide a backup line and a third primary line to the facility, and a new substation. The third primary line will support load growth at the plant.

Earlier this week, Dominion Energy announced it installed 2,000 feet of steel pipe and other infrastructure, and is upgrading a nearby regulating station for future customer expansion and to help grow industrial development in that area of Lordstown.

Dominion Energy did not release the dollar amount of the capital investment. A company spokesman said he could not because the information is proprietary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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