Semiconductor chip maker Wolfspeed celebrated the final steel beam going up for its new factory on Tuesday in Chatham County.

The $5 billion project is changing the way the world powers systems like electric cars. The plant will employ 1,800 Wolfspeed workers in six years.

Only on WRAL, anchor Debra Morgan spoke with company CEO Gregg Lowe about the company’s mission, long-term goals and the excitement surrounding the technology.

Q: When people drive by on Highway 64, they see this big project, a big building. What do you see? What do you feel when you look at it?

A: I feel the future, the future of cleaner energy, of electric cars, of solar, of the technology transition from silicon to silicon carbide. There’s a whole valley in California named after the semiconductor industry, Silicon Valley, of course. Here in North Carolina, we’re building the major, the world’s largest hub for silicon carbide. And, it’s enabling that transition from, you know, internal combustion engines to electric cars, a better use of solar energy.

Q: We’ve been talking a lot lately about the demand for electric vehicles declining. That’s changed since you first broke ground here. So how will that impact your output?

A: I think the transition to EVs is unstoppable. And the reason for that is the world’s largest market is China. And China is going all in and EVs and this transition really is not stoppable. There’s going to be fits and bursts and peaks and valleys. Most of the electric cars on the road are built on silicon. They were designed several years ago before silicon carbide was really where it is today. So, they have lousy range, they have lousy charging time. Over the next three years, there are going to be over 120 new models with just Wolfspeed silicon carbide in it. So, customers are going to be excited about a bigger, longer range, faster charging and, of course, the vehicle costs will come down as well.

People are excited to come here because of the mission, the passion, and the technology. We’re a very attractive place because if you’re in this industry, you realize you’re at a moment of change, going from silicon to silicon carbide, and you want to be able to look back in 30 years, look back to this time and say, ‘I was there when the industry made this transition. And I helped make this transition.’ The workforce here is up to about 2,300 people now on site, so we’re bringing a lot of economic development into the area as well.

Q: How many people have you hired already for the facility itself, not just construction?

A: Hundreds already. They’re getting trained. A lot of the training is happening on the Durham campus. But there, we actually have employees now full-time out here as well. We’re installing our first crystal growers as we speak. We’ll be energizing them in the summer. We’ll be actually producing material out of this factory, probably by the December quarter, perhaps January.

Q: It’s happening at a breakneck speed.

A: Eighteen months ago, this was a forest. It was 2 million cubic yards of rock that we had to blast through. So, it was quite a big project, but it’s amazing how fast it’s going up.

Q: You’ve got neighbors that are going to be joining you too, with Toyota and Vinfast. So, does this feel like Silicon Valley in California? Does this feel like you’re getting to be a hub here for electric vehicles?

A: Absolutely. Toyota is building the battery factory. Vinfast is using our technology in [its] cars. So … the neighbors are going to be supplying each other, which is really going to be fantastic. We’re very, very proud of that.

Q: Do you worry about competition in terms of hiring enough workers?

A: I think, at this point, we’re pretty excited about our ability to attract people. As I mentioned, we’re on the cutting edge of technology. We’re the new shiny thing in semiconductors. It’s actually quite, I don’t want to say easy, but it’s pretty straightforward for us to recruit people. A lot of it is local. But we also have people coming in from Texas, from California, from various different states bringing economic development here to Chatham County.

Q: You talked about the people in this community, how supportive have they been?

A: They’ve been terrific. You know, we work with lots of local organizations. One of the ones I’m very fond of is Celebrity Farms. It’s a goat farm in Siler City. It’s an active goat farm, but they also do really nice dinner events. So, when we have customers come in, we just stop on over to the goat farm. And I got to tell you, you know, we had a group of Japanese customers in and I think it’s the first goat farm they’ve ever been on, pretty entertaining.

Q: What are your concerns about safety and security when it comes to a facility of this size?

A: Safety, when you’re constructing a project, is really paramount and very, very important. Nearly every single time we have anybody out to the site for a tour, the first thing we go through is a safety protocol and do’s and don’ts, and so forth. The safety record on the site is really, really excellent. Whiting-Turner has been doing a great job on that. One of the things that’s interesting is that all of the safety people on this site are unified. And it’s one team. There’s not a safety team for this particular trade in that particular trade, etc. Everybody is branded safety and will help anybody in any way. That’s been fantastic.

Q: What about once the construction stops, and you actually start operating as the facility and making the wafers?

A: A lot of the facility is going to be automated. A lot of the things that would normally cause potential safety issues will be all automated. The kinds of workers that are going to be in this facility are going to be technicians, engineers, process people, etc. These are going to be very, very good paying jobs, think north of $80,000-a-year type jobs, and probably well north of that. There won’t be so much of a safety issue, it’s really going to be about the technology and the innovation and keeping the machines running. The facility will be operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Basically, it’ll be a nonstop operation. All of the electrical fields, the power, the water, you know, etc, have massive amounts of redundancy. So, if we need to do some maintenance on something, we can continue production by just switching over to another feed.