Episode Description

We’ve all seen the headlines: Lithium is key to making electric vehicles, but do we have enough to supply rapid EV adoption? Today, we’re speaking with two representatives from Piedmont Lithium, a North Carolina-based company that recently announced a massive project breaking ground right here in Tennessee. The company anticipates the new development will serve as the largest lithium hydroxide processing facility constructed in the United States, enabling the transition to a net-zero world and the creation of a clean-energy economy.

We’ll talk with Monique Parker, Vice President of Health, Safety and Environment, and Malissa Gordon, Manager of Community and Government Relations, about why a localized lithium supply chain is critical and what Piedmont is doing to help build out the EV supply chain in Tennessee and throughout the rest of the country.

Learn more about TAEBC and Piedmont Lithium.

Thank you to our podcast sponsor FirstBank. To keep up-to-date with the latest episodes, follow TAEBC on LinkedInInstagramFacebookTwitter and YouTube.


Cortney Piper: Welcome to Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re your number-one podcast from news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. I’m your host, Cortney Piper.

We’ve all seen the headlines. Lithium is a key part of ensuring our all-electric future for transportation, but do we have enough to supply rapid EV adoption? Today, we’re speaking with two representatives from Piedmont Lithium, a North Carolina-based company that recently announced a massive project breaking ground right here in Tennessee.

The company anticipates the new development will serve as the largest lithium hydroxide processing facility constructed in the United States, enabling the transition to a net zero world and the creation of a clean energy economy in America.

But before you hear from today’s guests, I want to remind our listeners about TAEBC’s upcoming annual meeting in Nashville on March 7th. This annual event allows TAEBC members, stakeholders, potential members, or anyone interested in advanced energy, to gather from across the state to celebrate our growing advanced energy economy. If you want to learn more or to register, please visit our website at tnadvancedenergy.com. You can stay up to date about the latest event developments by following us on social media or signing up for our newsletter.

For today’s sponsored segment, we’re welcoming back. Jennifer Clayton, Senior Financial Center manager at FirstBank. Jennifer, thanks for joining us on Energizing Tennessee.

Jennifer Clayton: Thanks for having me.

Cortney Piper: Tell our listeners a little bit more about FirstBank.

Jennifer Clayton: FirstBank, as you know, was founded in West Tennessee, and we have a strong West Tennessee presence.

I am the Senior Financial Center manager here in Oakland, located in West Tennessee, and I’m also the retail market manager for the Memphis region. As an employee of FirstBank, I can tell you that we are here to help our communities from both the person-to-person standpoint as well as helping local businesses grow. And we believe that if you bank local, you get more.

Cortney Piper: That’s right. Now, what role can financial institutions like FirstBank play in building out our state’s advanced energy economy?

Jennifer Clayton: Well, I think we can help by offering financial services and extend credit to small businesses who are involved in the new energy sources, such as the solar farm in Jackson and the electric vehicle manufacturing plant at Blue Oval, as well as financial services to the people who will be moving to West Tennessee, employed by these companies and by the businesses who will be supplying them.

Cortney Piper: Well, Jennifer, thank you. We are so glad you could join us on another episode of Energizing Tennessee. Thank you.

Today, we’re returning to the topic of EVs and transportation, but with a twist. I’m speaking with two representatives from Piedmont Lithium, a company that’s developing an integrated lithium business in the United States, which includes a future production facility in Tennessee. Monique Parker is the Vice President of Health, Safety and Environment, and Malissa Gordon is the Manager of Community and Government Relations.

Monique and Malissa, thanks for coming on the show.

Monique Parker: Thanks for having us.

Cortney Piper: All right. Tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and what you do at Piedmont Lithium.

Monique Parker: So, as, Cortney mentioned, my name is Monique Parker and I’m our Vice President of Safety, Environmental and Health. I’ve been with Piedmont about 16 months now, and essentially my role within our organization is to ensure we get all of our permits from an environmental perspective and to build and develop our safety programs.

Cortney Piper: Great. And Melissa?

Malissa Gordon: Hey, good morning or afternoon. My name’s Melissa Gordon. I’m a community manager and government relations for Piedmont. Been here about little over two years. And my general focus is to work closely with the policymakers and the delegations at local, state, and federal levels for Piedmont in our different areas of projects.

Cortney Piper: Excellent. Let’s start this conversation off with the basics. What is lithium? How do we get it, and why is it essential to facilitating a clean energy economy, particularly when we look at adoption of electric vehicle?

Monique Parker: Well, lithium is a metal, which seems very odd when you think of metals in the world, but it is one of the metals that we use in order to make lithium-ion batteries. It is normally found in spodumene rock in the ore. It can also be found in groundwater. So, but right now all of our projects are based on mining lithium out of the spodumene ore, so it’s a pegmatite. It is not commonly found in the US in that form. There are deposits in various areas, but the most profitable, I’ll say the deposit is located in North Carolina where there is a Tin-Spodumene Belt that runs north and south through that area.

The way that we will go about mining that in the US and in other area and where other hard rock is done is through normal mining practices: blasting and then taking that ore separating it and then creating it and concentrating it to make it into lithium hydroxide, which is the material that will actually be used within the battery manufacturers to create those batteries for the EV market.

Lithium as a metal. There are a lot of different styles and compositions that you can find it in. But in the composition that we use it in, in the or e in transferring it to lithium hydroxide is one of the safest methods in order to utilize, manufacture and process the lithium.

Cortney Piper: And that gets me to my next question. Piedmont frequently uses the phrase all lithium is not created equal. Can. So can you break down what you mean by that?

Monique Parker: Yes. So many times you hear, or people may say, well, lithium, you know, it catches fire and those types of things. Lithium metal, by its own rights, is what we say is pyrophoric, where if it comes in contact with water or moisture, it will start a fire.

But we don’t use lithium metal in the context of lithium metal, meaning, you know, holding a piece of lithium metal in your hands. When it is combined with other materials as with the, or the rock, the pegmatite, it is more controlled mineral in that state. And so that’s why I say from our processing, we are processing and working with it in a more stable manner than if it were pure lithium metal that was, you know, the element on the periodic chart. Once it’s combined with those other elements, it gives it more stability.

Cortney Piper: Wow. That’s good information to have. Now, there have been a lot of new stories and talk about the lithium supply chain in the United States.

We know this is a key priority of the current administration and we know that building up a local domestic supply chain for things like batteries is gonna be vitally important for our future. So, can you walk us through the steps in this supply chain and why it’s important to have a localized supply of lithium?

Monique Parker: Happy to do so. So, I mean, obviously the history up until most recent, most battery manufacturers obtained their lithium from outside of the US whether it’s primarily China. A lot of that was received from deposits in Chile, in, Australia, and then sent to China for further processing. And so that supply chain, that history of that supply chain, has taken us to the point where now we’ve become a little bit dependent on foreign countries.

And so we want to transition and shift that supply chain, where it is domestically mined, domestically produced and then domestically transitioned to battery manufacturers in the US. And so our project will allow that to occur. As we continue to process through progressing of the project in opening our potential operations, we see the ability to actually mine the lithium in the US, further process it in facilities, in our proposed facilities in Tennessee and North Carolina. Primarily, you know, starting with Tennessee being first, which is a great thing, and then shifting it and selling it to the battery manufacturers that are popping up across the US to be able to supply the EV market.

Cortney Piper: You know, onshoring seems to be a buzzword of the day, and it seems like that’s exactly what needs to happen with the lithium supply chain. And that’s exactly what Piedmont is doing. This whole idea of, for a very long time, we sent everything offshore. It was cheaper to do things in China, cheaper to do things overseas, and now there is a commitment to bring those jobs, those companies, that kind of technology and those processes back to the United States to focus on a more local supply chain. So I think that’s just fantastic. Malissa, did you wanna add anything to that?

Malissa Gordon: Yeah, no. Just that, you know, we, our, our projects here both in Tennessee and North Carolina, you know, both of ’em will play a very vital role in reducing the reliance on foreign nations. You know, providing a Made in America solution for lithium hydroxide. And that is really the intent for the way we’ve set up both processes, both in North Carolina and Tennessee.

And it, and Monique hit on it. You know, this will give the nation that significant boost to meet the demand because demand and supply do not meet right now. It’s not, it’s not, not the same. So we’re, you know, we’re doing our part to produce here in the US today to help that boost.

Cortney Piper: Made in America. Very, very important. Now, towards the end of 2022, Piedmont announced it received a roughly $142 million DOE grant, I rounded up there, which will support the construction of your $600 million Tennessee Lithium project in McMinn County.

And this project aims to expand the US supply of lithium hydroxide by 30,000 metric tons per year. And lithium hydroxide is a key component of high energy density, long-range EV batteries, which we’ve talked a little bit about, but walk me through some of the reasons Piedmont was drawn to Tennessee.

Malissa Gordon: Yeah, so, you know, we started a site selection process early on and looked at several states, several counties within states. You know, we were immediately drawn to the city of Etowah, McMinn County, for numerous reasons. You know, the infrastructure that was already in place. The business climate. The area being known for the center of manufacturing. You know, we knew that we would be able to work located there.

But I gotta tell you, Cortney, it was the people. It was, you know, we, we felt that we were at home as soon as we walked into McMinn County, meeting with, you know, the city of Etowah, McMinn County elected officials, the state of Tennessee, TVA, and so many others. You know, it was a clear indication that we were a good fit on both sides.

And, you know, being able to utilize rail and highways and riverways, all of that was already in place. So it was kind of a no-brainer that that was the perfect place for, for our new facility.

Cortney Piper: You know, Tennesseeans seem to have that effect on businesses that want to locate here. It’s all about the people.

Malissa Gordon: Yes.

Cortney Piper: And I, I figured what you all were picking up on was the fact that we’re also very much a leader in this advanced energy economy. You guys might know, you ladies might know, that we measure the advanced energy economy in Tennessee every three years, and there are over 20,000 businesses that contribute about $46 billion dollars to our state GDP and employ roughly 394,000 Tennesseans.

So, because we have such a great breadth and depth and understanding of that kind of economy and the businesses and what they can contribute to our communities and our state, I think that just propels that welcoming Tennessee culture as we continue to see more and more business activities. So, that’s great that you all picked up on that, but not surprising. I will say . . Malissa, what kind of economic impact, keeping on this theme of economic impact, will this project have on the community?

Malissa Gordon: Yeah, so over the next few years Piedmont plans to invest approximately $600 million to develop the operation there in McMinn County.

And again, we, we plan to utilize the existing infrastructure to move the raw materials and finished products in and out of the facility. So that’s definitely an economic driver. And jobs, you know, we’re expected to create 120 new direct jobs. As, as I mentioned earlier before our call, we have actually made our first two hires for the Tennessee project.

We have a communications manager and a community manager, both vital, more important roles, especially at the beginning of a project like this. And part of that with our job and our investment, you know, we’re already engaging with our community there with community college, academic institutions to make sure that, you know, we are creating job and career pathways for the folks there. We want to hire local, so we want to work with our partners there to ensure that we can do so and that we can, you know, set up some programs that are important that someone can take advantage of and go straight into a job there in McMinn County with our Tennessee operation.

Cortney Piper: Fantastic. You know, we have heard from our members from businesses in the advanced energy economy that Tennessee’s community colleges and TCAT system are really a big, big plus for companies like yours that either want or need a specific training program that’s really custom to your company or just having a general certificate that is required to hire those a hundred plus people that will need to work at Piedmont Lithium. So that is great that you all are, are connected with those folks. Remind our listeners also about the timeline for this Tennessee project.

Monique Parker: So, the timeline for the Tennessee project, right now, we are going through front-end engineering design of the facility itself. And also we’ve started going through the permitting PERS process.

So, we anticipate having all things buttoned up in regards to having major permits that are necessary to start construction, having our design and engineering completed sometime within 2023. So, we’re looking at about second half of 2023 to start construction with operations being essentially 24 months later. So by 2025, we would anticipate the Tennessee site to be up and operating.

Cortney Piper: That is great. Now, Piedmont Lithium places a high value on sustainability for the people, the planet, and the communities. Outline some of your innovative processes geared towards leaving a more environmentally responsible footprint, and explain how you’re designing the Tennessee Lithium projects for the local community.

Monique Parker: So, this is one area that I get a little bit excited about in regards to the environmental and sustainable impacts. Traditional lithium hydroxide production uses very intensive acid-leaching process and it generates a hazardous waste. We have partnered with Metso Outotec and we have, we’re using their newest technology that they have, where we are gonna create lithium hydroxide using pressure leaching technology. And so what that allows is, it allows us to remove that acid into the process and generating that hazardous waste. So our product will not be intensive acid use. And like I mentioned, there will be reduced hazardous waste.

Essentially our process doesn’t create hazardous waste in regards to the process itself. And so those are two main areas where we’re able to really have a positive impact on the environment to look at sustainability from those perspectives.

Also with that, we look at continuously, what does our carbon footprint look like? You know, how are we bringing materials in? How are we shipping materials out? What does our process look like in regards to use of natural gas and other electricity? And so those are all big impacts into what we’re doing. We’re using Low NOx burners and all of our boilers into the finer that will be part of the process. All of those things, again, will reduce the NOx emissions that will go into the air permitting process that again, reduces the carbon footprint.

So, we take this very seriously and as I mentioned, very passionate about ensuring that we look at each step of the process and try to streamline as much as we can, but also make sure that everything we’re doing is environmentally friendly and neighbor friendly.

So looking at noise and, and again, truck traffic and all of those things are important for us to make sure that we minimize them as much as possible, we control them, so that we are a good neighbor, a good steward to the environment, and one of the best companies Tennessee can have.

Cortney Piper: I love that. I also really appreciate the innovation too that’s coming with bringing these projects back to the United States, Tennessee in particular.

It’s just really refreshing to see, cause when you’re building something new, like a new energy economy, when you’re transitioning transportation in particular to electric vehicles, you’ve gotta figure out whole new processes and infrastructure. I mean, it cannot be your grandfather’s way of making and mining and producing things. We have to find different ways and I really appreciate that emphasis on, on innovation. That is just fantastic.

Our final question to you all is where do you see the lithium industry in the United States moving in the next five to 10 years? Any predictions?

Malissa Gordon: I think it’s clear, it’s obvious that we are in a new era where, you know, legislation all the way down, federal level, all the way down, we’re seeing this support to help build a lithium hydroxide supply here in the United States.

You know, we were grateful to be a recipient of one of the battery grants through the Department of Energy. And I think that is a clear indication that this industry will continue to grow. Yes, there are you know, road humps. I will not call ’em roadblocks that come with this.

As we just said, it’s a new, it’s a new industry, but we are seeing so much support for this industry. So, it’s just gonna continue to grow and I feel Piedmont will grow right along with it. You know, we, we continue to look for other opportunities. We continue to work with our strategic partners in other areas, including Canada, Ghana, and other opportunities that may come. But I think it all comes down to that support and, and how we can continue to grow this industry.

Cortney Piper: It has been wonderful talking with you both. Before we close for today, please tell our listeners where they can learn more about Piedmont Lithium.

Malissa Gordon: We have a website, www.piedmont lithium.com. We have several email addresses for community engagement, involvement questions, several places on our website where you can reach out to any of us directly.

Cortney Piper: Great. Monique Parker and Malissa Gordon of Piedmont Lithium. Thank you for coming on the show.

Malissa Gordon: Thanks, Cortney.

Monique Parker: Thank you for having us.

Cortney Piper: And that’s our show. Thanks for tuning into Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re glad to be your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. If you like what you heard, please share it with others or leave a rating and review.

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