RALEIGH – More expansion news from Toyota about its growing lithium battery complex in the Triad gave Gov. Roy Cooper a chance to talk about North Carolina’s growing clean energy economy. And he took full advantage of the opportunity, talking with WRAL News Capitol Bureau Chief Laura Leslie about Toyota, how N.C. lost out on a Toyota car factory but came back to win the battery deal, what’s going on with VinFast which has been hampered by a falling stock price, the electric vehicle sector, and lithium mining for EV batteries.

Laura Leslie (WRAL News photo)

The following is a transcript of Leslie’s interview with Cooper, slightly edited for clarity.

  • This is this is really big news, obviously. So, so tell me how this all you know, you said you were over there talking to the president of the company. So what were those conversations like and how did this relate to that?

Well, our partnership with Toyota goes back several years. In 2017, we were one of the last two states to get the tude for Toyota to choose to put its automotive production plant. This is a fossil fuel gasoline vehicle plant, it went to Alabama instead. I was over in Tokyo meeting with Toyota officials.

After that, I asked them for a debrief and said, tell us what we can do better to get Toyota to come to North Carolina. The problems that they cited were with the megasite, where they are now we fixed those challenges.

And sure enough, when a window closed a door opened. We would much rather have this electric vehicle battery plant … we continue[d] to talk with them about potential expansion. And we talked over in Japan more about progress and plans for this site [in Randolph County]. And sure enough, this is the third time they’ve increased the capacity of this plant.

And now they’ve gone from six assembly lines to 14 assembly lines, this will be the largest single financial investment of a foreign owned company in the history of North Carolina.

Toyota bringing 3,000 more jobs to NC electric battery plant, now a $13.9 billion investment

Vinfast will have a few more jobs than this, but 5100 jobs at this Toyota plant is truly exciting. And I think the thing that will keep me up at night, is making sure that we can fill all these jobs, the creation of the job are coming in waves because

North Carolina has become the epicenter for the clean energy economy, and particularly clean transportation.

You know, just a few days earlier, we announced Epsilon, a 500 jobs down in Brunswick County that’s going to be making materials for electric batteries. The supply chain is just growing.

We’re becoming … recognized globally as the place to be if you’re going to be involved in the clean energy economy. And that’s, that’s exciting for our state.

  • I feel like is there a certain amount of momentum here that as you get a little bit more coming in, then more people start looking? Is that kind of how that works?

That’s right, you create an ecosystem and a pool of employees, one of the most important things they want to know is do I have the train people here to take these jobs? Am I going to be able to rely on this day to provide me with the employees that I need? That’s the biggest challenge that we have.

But clearly, these companies do a lot of research. Because when they’re going to invest that kind of money, they’re going to invest $13.9 billion. Obviously, they want to be able to make sure those jobs are filled. And I think that’s the most important thing that we provide right now.

Obviously, we do have performance based incentives that that help us attract these companies. I think we’ve had great cooperation among local, state and federal when you look at the Inflation Reduction Act that was pushed by the Biden Harris administration, that has encouraged clean energy manufacturing in the United States. So it’s great when these can be American jobs.

And it’s even better when they can be North Carolina, American jobs. So all of that I think, has lured these clean energy companies to North Carolina. And I really think this is just the beginning, we we have to continue to be friendly toward clean energy companies, we have targeted these companies saying that we are ready to do this. And look, it’s critical for our fight against climate change to reduce our carbon output. But even if you don’t care about that, this is where the private markets are going.

So we need to have North Carolina positioned so that we can reap the economic benefit of this move to clean energy that’s going to happen across the globe. Anyway, already that bad has begun to happen. We just need to keep up the synergy. And part of that is better and more investment in education from cradle to career to make sure that we are training people to get these more than $62,000 a year jobs that are going to be created at the Toyota battery plant.

VinFast CEO on ‘difficult’ US market: ‘If we can make it there … people will believe in us’

  • VinFast, obviously hitting some bumps here, do you have concerns about VinFast? You still feel confident that that’s projects going to come together?

I’m feeling very confident in VinFast. And just remember, you know, we have performance based incentives here. So they’ve got to actually create the jobs, and to be able to make sure they pay them the salary that they say they’re paying them.

But this company is committed, they’re already working on this this site, they have strong leadership, they have strong financial backing.

What they’re trying to do here is to make an electric vehicle vehicle that’s affordable, to the middle class to everyday families. That’s their goal. And I think that if there’s anything about vinfast, that you would criticize is that they move very fast. Their goals are so ambitious, they wanted to get places quickly. And, you know, sometimes it’s just impossible with everything you’ve got to do to be able to get to those goals.

But I think clearly, they are gonna take consumer feedback, and correct issues that they may have had with their vehicles, I think they’re gonna get the financing to continue with this. And I’m very excited because they know they’re in the right place as well, that we can provide them with the employees that they need.

And we’re pulling together this supply chain that’s going to help them significantly as they begin to assemble these cars in North Carolina, we’ve been waiting for decades for an automobile manufacturing plant in North Carolina, we’ve never been able to get one, we just had to wait to the EV era. And that’s that’s where we want to be anyway, because that’s the future of transportation.

  • We were talking about the incentives [for] Toyota. Is [Toyota] getting additional incentives for this expansion, and if so, how many of those incentives are how much is coming from the state.

So there is a job development investment and grant that now will be significantly higher, because they are increasing the number of jobs by 3,000. And I believe that number is $315 million over 39 years, if they create the number of jobs at the salaries that they say.

I will correct that figure if it’s wrong, but I believe that’s where it is. Now, I’ve got to look at the newest figure. But we already had, and the legislature had already passed a law to be ready for this at this site, if we needed to go up more. And so I think we can get all of that information to you.

  • There have been some concerns about lithium mining and about mining in North Carolina in general. And some people who are kind of seeing this this sort of push towards you know, EVs and batteries as being a push toward the eventual expansion of lithium mining and quartz mining in North Carolina. Do you have environmental concerns about?

Well, I think you have to make sure that the environment is protected when you mined for minerals that are needed in in manufacturing, and in North Carolina, that we will we will do that. But that’s an important part, obviously, of making electric batteries.

But I’ll tell you, the technology is moving so fast in in this arena, that I’m not sure exactly what is going to be required in the future because the technology is moving fast. And I think staying on the front end of that is going to be important. And I think it’s it is positive that North Carolina does have a lithium mine that can help provide the raw materials for these EV batteries. And it’s going to be a net positive for the environment.

When you think about the carbon reduction that’s going to occur right now, our transportation sector is causes us the most problem with carbon. Already in North Carolina, we’ve decided in our power sector that we’re going to get to carbon zero by 2050. And we have a law in place to make that happen.

On the transportation side, we really need to step up and this is one of the ways to do it simply by moving toward zero emission vehicles. Toyota is going to be making both plug in hybrids and EV batteries. I think all of that is going to be important as we try to move toward clean transportation into a clean energy future.