Buttigieg, Surveying Future Panasonic Battery Plant, Sees Manufacturing ‘Renaissance’

Pete Buttigieg during a 2022 visit to Kansas City, Kan.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg during a 2022 visit to Kansas City, Kan. (Rich Sugg/The Kansas City Star via TNS)

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Feb. 27 hailed the massive Panasonic battery plant planned for De Soto, Kan., as part of a wave of industrial production centered on electric vehicles that is spurring an “American renaissance” in manufacturing.

Buttigieg was among a host of officials who descended upon the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant in western Johnson County, Kan., to survey the vast field of dirt where the $4 billion plant that is expected to employ 4,000 people will one day stand. In the distance, excavators and heavy equipment were already at work.

“Ask any global company in the EV supply chain why they are choosing to open a new facility in the U.S. and you will hear about the investments we are making — the infrastructure law, the climate and jobs law and other good policies as among the decisive factors,” Buttigieg said. “Panasonic is a fantastic example of what is possible.”

Buttigieg’s appearance marked something of an additional victory lap for federal, state and local officials over the much-heralded project. And it offered Buttigieg a chance to trumpet the administration’s achievements in a conservative state where President Joe Biden lost to former President Donald Trump 56% to 42% in 2020.

“It can be frustrating in Washington to see some people willing to take potshots at good jobs for their own constituents by opposing EV manufacturers,” Buttigieg said. “But as the president has said and demonstrated, our administration works for every American.”

Kansas officials have already been promoting the plant for months. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration made the plant a key element in her final re-election pitch last fall.

Kelly and Lt. Gov. David Toland, who leads the Kansas Department of Commerce, have pointed to the thousands of anticipated jobs at the plant, which could transform western Johnson County into a hub of manufacturing activity, and the overall boost to the state’s economy as suppliers gear up for the plan.

“We are proud that this new plant represents the future of manufacturing, that is the future of energy in our country,” De Soto Mayor Rick Walker said.

But the visit also underscored the national prominence of the project, which is part of a new era of manufacturing helping to fuel the rapidly expanding market for electric vehicles. The U.S. electric vehicle market is expected to grow from $28 billion in 2021 to $137 billion in 2028, according to a Fortune Business Insights report published last July.

The Panasonic plant will produce lithium-ion batteries. The U.S. was home to about 8% of the global lithium-ion cell manufacturing in 2020, according to Atlas Public Policy.

“We are bringing EV costs down and the number of jobs in EV manufacturing up at the same time. And that didn’t just happen by chance,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg and other officials arrived at the Panasonic site after Buttigieg participated in a ribbon-cutting event at the new Kansas City International Airport terminal, which was opened to the public on Feb. 28.

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), who represents much of the Kansas side of the metro, sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and accompanied Buttigieg to the Panasonic site. She said the benefits of bills like the infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act are starting to be seen.

“We’re attracting innovation, we’re building sustainable communities and we’re doing it around this type of investment,” Davids said.

Panasonic selected Kansas to build its battery plant after a full-press court by state officials. The Legislature approved, and Kelly signed into law, the creation of a new economic incentive program — APEX — to lure the company, which was also considering a plant site in Oklahoma.

The program calls for paying Panasonic up to 12.5% of its qualifying investment costs. That means the company could receive $500 million from Kansas taxpayers for building its $4 billion plant. Kansas didn’t secure any job guarantees from Panasonic, a decision that prompted criticism, but officials have said the plant will employ about 4,000 people. Altogether, the project is receiving more than $1 billion in local and state incentives.

We are proud that this new plant represents the future of manufacturing, that is the future of energy in our country.

Rick Walker, Mayor of De Soto, Kan.

Rick Walker, Mayor of De Soto, Kan.

During an interview with The Star, Buttigieg spoke of the importance of trying “to get it right” with incentives. “You don’t want to give away the store, but you do want to make sure you’re competitive,” he said.

“But what I see here in Kansas and what we’re focusing on nationally is making sure we leave nothing to chance when it comes to American leadership and a growing industry,” Buttigieg said, adding that in the Biden administration “industrial policy isn’t a dirty word.”

The Feb. 27 visit was in line with the Biden administration’s focus on electric vehicles. The federal infrastructure law, approved by Congress and signed into law by Biden in 2021, is providing billions to encourage electric vehicle manufacturing and prepare the country for their widespread use.

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The market has been rapidly growing in the United States as consumer preferences change and governments heavily subsidize electrification. In the first half of 2022, automakers announced a record $82.1 billion in investment for EV manufacturing in the U.S., according to research from Atlas Public Policy, which studies the industry.

The law includes nearly $3 billion to boost production of advanced batteries — funding controlled by the Department of Energy. The Department of Transportation in September also approved a 50-state electric vehicle infrastructure deployment plan that provides states with access to up to $5 billion in funds over the next five years to build a network of charging stations covering 75,000 miles of highway.

And the Biden administration in February announced national standards for federally funded EV charging projects. The standards are intended to ensure drivers experience consistency across an eventual national network of charging stations.

“Early on, I think there was an image that EVs were for, you know, a handful, presumably liberal early adopters,” Buttigieg said. “We’re in a different chapter right now.”

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