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Exploring how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Author Bob Keefe on America’s next greener, cleaner American business revolution

Rows of solar panels in a solar farm.
Bob Keefe’s new "American Business Revolution" includes “​​clean energy, clean transportation, clean vehicles, and energy efficiency.”

North Carolina stands to gain 30,000 new jobs derived from clean energy-related projects announced in the wake of the Inflation Reduction Act, according to a report by nonprofit Environmental Entrepreneurs, a business group that advocates for clean energy. Those jobs include solar manufacturing plant employees, construction workers building those plants as well as incidental positions like the waitstaff in nearby restaurants.

WFAE climate reporter Zachary Turner sat down with executive director Bob Keefe to discuss his new book, "Clean Economy Now: Stories from the Frontlines of an American Business Revolution."

You can read a transcript of the audio story below. An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in WFAE's Climate News newsletter. You can sign up here.

Don't miss WFAE's 2024 Carolinas Climate Summit on April 18. We have an exciting lineup of speakers who will address the impact of climate change on the Carolinas; climate and environmental justice; solutions; individual action; and other key issues that are shaping our region.

Zachary Turner: I met Bob Keefe on the front steps of UNC’s School of Journalism and Media in Chapel Hill.

Bob Keefe: Well, it's fitting that we're sitting at the journalism school at the University of North Carolina, where I — 40 years ago — stepped foot on this campus for the first time to beg my way into the journalism school because all I ever wanted to do was be a writer.

Author Bob Keefe is the executive director of the nonprofit business group Environmental Entrepreneurs.
Bob Keefe
Author Bob Keefe is the executive director of the nonprofit business group Environmental Entrepreneurs.

Turner: Keefe accomplished that goal, writing about business, technology and the White House for 25 years as a journalist. Now, as executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Entrepreneurs, he’s releasing "Clean Economy Now," which manages to fit all three beats in one book.

So, what is the “clean economy”?

Keefe: When people think about clean energy or clean economy, they naturally think of solar panels and wind turbines, which is understandable. But the clean economy in general is a lot larger than that.

Think about energy efficiency, think about electric vehicles. Think about the batteries that go in those electric vehicles. So, the clean economy — the way that my organization, E2 [Environmental Entrepreneurs], and I think about it — is clean energy, clean transportation, clean vehicles, and energy efficiency.

Turner: Keefe’s subtitle invokes this concept of revolution, which denotes change from a starting to a different, distinct ending point.

Keefe: I think of something like the Industrial Revolution and think about how the Industrial Revolution really touched every aspect of a lot of people's lives, created brand new industries, created new investments, and changed economies worldwide. That's what we're seeing right now with the clean economy.

Right now, there are about 300 major clean energy projects popping up all over our country. Think about electric vehicle factories like Toyota is building in Liberty, North Carolina. Think about companies like Atom Power, which is switching equipment for electric vehicle charging equipment in Huntersville, North Carolina. Think about Albemarle Corporation that's based in Charlotte and is resurrecting a lithium mine in Kings Mountain that has been dormant for almost 40 years to process the raw materials needed for batteries. 100,000 jobs had been announced through those 300 or so projects around the country. We're talking about $115 billion in private-sector investment. When has this country ever seen 300 factories coming out of the ground? When have we seen that kind of revolutionary change in our economy?

Turner: North Carolina received $10.1 billion in private, clean energy investments in the year after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Atom Power, Kempower, and Wolfspeed each announced a new EV-related manufacturing facility in the state. Toyota announced two.

The first chapter of "Clean Economy Now" begins in a familiar setting for many residents of the Queen City. Albemarle, a chemical company, is trying to reopen a long-closed lithium mine in Kings Mountain.

Keefe: For folks who don't know, the Battle of Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War was really seen as a turning point. If you look at what Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were saying about it, they talk about this little battle in Kings Mountain as a turning point in the war.

Now, I didn't know much about Kings Mountain until I saw the lithium operation that Albemarle Corp. is restarting there. This was a lithium mine that supplied lithium for, among other things, the Manhattan Project. But [the mine]’s been dormant since the '80s, because we didn't have a lot of use for lithium in this country.

Well, look what's happening now. All the electric vehicles that we're seeing roll off assembly lines, all of the energy storage that every single utility is adding right now, that takes batteries. Right now, about 90% of those batteries come from China. The majority of the raw materials that go into that come from other countries as well. If this project in Kings Mountain goes as it’s expected to go, we're going to be making batteries in America. We're going to be getting the raw materials for this in America. And it's going to be done by Americans. That's a revolution to me.

Turner: The upcoming election carries uncertainty to many sectors, the energy sector included. Federal spending programs like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act have led to significant clean energy investments in red states. That benefit, said Keefe, isn’t lost on Republicans … though it doesn’t always come out on the campaign trail.

Keefe: Well, I'll give you two thoughts on that. First, I talked to Gina McCarthy, who was the national climate advisor to President Biden when the IRA and all these policies got put together. I asked her, “Gina, did you guys know that all these jobs are going to be going to red states and to Republican districts when the Democrats passed this law?”

And she said, “Yeah, actually, we kind of did. This is an administration for all people, not just for Democrats, not just for Republicans. And these are the places that need these jobs the most. So why wouldn't we pass policies to help these areas?”

The second thing I would say is that I was actually just in Washington two weeks ago meeting with Republican lawmakers and others, meeting a group of business people from around the country. We were talking about the benefits they’re seeing from the IRA. What even Republican lawmakers will tell you is that of course we want these jobs. Of course, we want these investments in our districts. And we're not going to do anything to roll that back. But then you see them voting for bills that will roll parts of [the Inflation Reduction Act] back. They're out there talking about it, which is starting to spook companies and investors that are driving this growth.

Turner: Battery manufacturers, lithium mines, and EV infrastructure makers require workers, both during construction and afterward. But a recent report by Environmental Entrepreneurs stated that the secondary economic impacts of these investments go a lot further.

Keefe: At E2, we've been tracking clean energy projects around the country. We know how many jobs have been announced. We know what the direct investment for those projects is expected to be. What we didn't know is what are the secondary impacts of that? What are the additional economic benefits that come with that?

When you're building an electric vehicle factory or a battery plant that requires construction workers, construction workers have to eat. Construction workers need a place to stay. After that plant gets running, those workers are going to need a new home. They're going to have to go to the grocery store.

In North Carolina, we looked at the projects that were announced in the first year of the IRA. There are about nine major projects: Toyota’s factory, Kempower in Durham, Atom Power in Huntersville, and several others.

We knew that about 3,600 jobs were announced to begin with, but when you think about those construction workers, the restaurant owner, and the waitress that works at the restaurants, etc., the economic multiplier is about eight-fold. So, instead of 3,600 jobs, closer to 30,000 jobs are supported every year while those factories are being built. Then, a smaller number after that once the factory gets up and going.

Now, once those factories are up and going, they're also paying state and local taxes. So, we looked at that first year of the IRA, and there's something like $500 million worth of state, local, and federal taxes that are going to be generated each and every year from just those nine projects. That's money to put more teachers in schools, more cops on the beat, keep the street lights on at night, and more parks for kids to play in. My point is, even if you're not working at one of these factories, even if you don't like or drive EVs, or have solar panels on your roof, you're probably benefiting from these landmark policies that are driving this economic growth.

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Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.