Renewable energy can make strange bedfellows along the political divide, and the latest example is Alabama. The state without an official nickname has been wandering in the doldrums of the green energy revolution while others leap ahead, as may be expected from its red-leaning track record at the ballot box. Intermediate, Alabama is poised to kick its solar output into high gear bigly, and the global auto maker Mercedes-Benz can take part of the credit.
Red Gloves Are Off On Green Energy
Federal policy on clean power hit the skids between 2017 and 2020, but the stage was already set for a lowering of the political swords on a state-by-state basis. Red-leaning Iowa and Texas cemented their green energy profiles during the renewables-friendly Obama administration between 2009 and 2016, when they hopped the wind power train and never looked back.
As detailed in state-by-state rankings compiled by our friends over at American Clean Power, as of last year Texas nailed the #1 spot for a combined capacity of wind, solar, and energy storage assets. For percent of electricity generation from those assets, Texas came in at a respectable #13.
Similarly, Iowa ranked #3 for capacity and #1 for electricity.
Meanwhile, Alabama came in at #39 for capacity and #49 for electricity, with less than 1% of its kilowatts coming from wind, solar, and storage.
That’s not quite the whole picture in terms of low carbon energy production, because Alabama is among the national leaders in nuclear energy, and in hydropower among eastern US states. Still, the prospects for growth in both of those areas are slim in Alabama, while green energy opportunities are ripe for the picking.
Green Energy & Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
To be clear, it’s not all about the politics. Alabama is located in a region of the US where lower-altitude wind resources are less than optimal, and that can be a stumbling block.
The US Department of Energy aims to resolve the problem by encouraging the wind industry to develop taller towers and longer blades. In the meantime, the solar industry could emerge as the bright spot in Alabama’s green energy profile.
Just a couple of years ago, Alabama was down in the #50 slot for installed solar power. Then it bounced up to #18 before settling into the 28th-place slot last year. While a consistent trend has yet to, the recent activity is a promising sign.
That brings us around to Mercedes-Benz. As with many other leading global manufacturers, Mercedes-Benz is on a mission to decarbonize its factories, and that could mean one of two things for its existing operations in Alabama: either they decarbonize, or the company moves its operations to Iowa, Texas, or someplace else that provides a better fit for its business model of the future.
As Mercedes-Benz notes, the company’s existing operations in Alabama are no small potatoes. The company counts a total of $7 billion invested in Alabama since the 1990s, a figure that includes $1 billion for a newly announced battery plant in Bibb County and assorted other upgrades related to its plans for manufacturing electric vehicles in the states.
“Today, Mercedes-Benz US International (MBUSI) employs around 4,500 people and also secures an estimated additional 11,000 jobs with suppliers and service providers in the region. Around four million vehicles have left the Tuscaloosa plant since 1997, with around 260,000 SUVs rolling off the production line in 2021 alone. Roughly two-thirds of annual production is exported, making MBUSI one of the largest exporters of automobiles from the US,” Mercedes-Benz recounts.
More Solar Power For Alabama
With all this at stake — including access to export markets — Mercedes-Benz is not likely to ditch Alabama for the sake of a few missing clean kilowatts. Still, in a press release announcing the new battery plant, the company did emphasize that it expects the new battery plant to run on 100% solar power, contingent on approval of PV projects in the pipeline.
Not to jinx, but Mercedes-Benz already appears to have that in hand. Building on its longstanding relationship with the utility Alabama Power, last year Mercedes-Benz received approval to nail 80 megawatts in renewable energy credits for its campuses in Vance and Bibb counties, from the proposed Letohatchee Solar Project. The project is expected to begin operation in 2024, which is right around the time Mercedes-Benz expects those renewable kilowatts to start rolling in.
Alabama Power is not necessarily the hero here. The company has been a little slow on the solar uptake, and the state’s rural electric cooperatives have also been behind the green energy curve compared to activity in other states.
Instead, prospects for rapid solar growth in Alabama may depend on a public utility and a rather surprising assist from the oil and gas giant BP, which launched into the solar power field through its Lightsource BP solar branch a few years back.
Last December, Lightsource announced that it closed on a $100 million financing package for its 130-megawatt Black Bear Solar project in Montgomery County, under a long term contract with the Alabama Municipal Electric Authority. AMEA covers 350,000 ratepayers in 11 cities including Alexander City, Dothan, Fairhope, Foley, LaFayette, Lanett, Luverne, Opelika, Piedmont, Sylacauga, and Tuskegee.
According to our friends over at the Solar Energy Industries Association, Alabama’s installed solar capacity topped out at 578 megawatts last year, so the AMEA deal alone represents a significant step up.
Building Better EV Batteries With Solar Power
Alabama has a lot of catching up to do in the green energy space, but Mercedes-Benz could launch the state into front-runner status for electric vehicles.
The new battery plant in Bibb County is part of the company’s plans for producing its forthcoming EQS SUV and EQE SUV in Alabama, which puts the state in the middle of the company’s 3-continent, 7-location electrification plan.
The new battery plant also represents a potential catapult into next-level EV battery performance. Mercedes-Benz has hooked up with the leading EV battery manufacturer Envision for the new plant, which is reportedly working towards the 1,000 kilometer range for a new lithium-ion battery to be mass produced in 2024.
With all this going on, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey seems ready to throw the oil industry under the bus along with gas and coal.
Last week, the Governor participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the new battery plant, of which she said:
“Today, with the opening of this new battery plant, Alabama is helping Mercedes accelerate its production of industry leading electric vehicles. We’re proud to call Mercedes a partner, and we’re excited about the future that we are building together in Alabama.”
Ivey’s administration also helped lay the groundwork for an EV revolution in Alabama last June, when they greenlighted a new graphite processing plant to be located in Coosa County, under the umbrella of Westwater Resources.
“This plant not only will make Alabama the US leader in graphite production, the go-to place for this important resource in battery manufacturing, it will also elevate our standing even more as a major player in the fast-growing electric vehicle sector,” Ivey enthused.
“We’re home to four major auto plants, and the ability to source precious materials in state for the lithium-ion batteries used in electric and hybrid vehicles will be a big plus in attracting other manufacturing jobs to the state,” she added.
That’s quite a turnaround for a state leader who built her political career on supporting fossil fuel stakeholders.
Promoting EVs is a not-so-subtle poke at the oil industry, and it’s just one step away from ditting fossil fueled power generation, too.
As long as Mercedes-Benz and other leading manufacturers keep pushing for more green energy, partisan politics will continue to wilt under the pressure.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: New EV battery plant in Alabama to run on green energy credits (Bibb County battery plant courtesy of Mercedes-Benz).
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