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(Yonhap Feature) Construction in full swing for joint mega U.S. EV battery plants as SK eyes global top spot

12:00 January 15, 2023

By Kim Seung-yeon

GLENDALE, Kentucky, Jan. 14 (Yonhap) -- Rain had wetted much of the clay soil on the ground -- rich terracotta earth colors -- creating small and large puddles everywhere around a gigantic steel structure, densely embedded with millions of steel beams.

Yet it was another busy Sunday for many of the 800 engineers and construction workers, who had turned up for work to "get moving" on schedule for the electric vehicle battery manufacturing plants, under construction in Glendale, about 84.5 kilometers south of Louisville in the U.S. state of Kentucky.

The 6.28 million-square-meter construction site, unveiled to South Korean media on Jan. 8, is where South Korean battery producer SK On Co. and Ford Motor Co. are building what will be the biggest EV battery plants in the United States for such a facility built on a single site.

"It's a big program, so we need to take advantage of any days that we can to accelerate the schedule," George Eschker, a superintendent at Barton Malow Co., the lead contractor of the project, said.

"We have up to 160 people working here now in several teams today," Eschker said.

This photo, provided by SK On Co. on Jan. 8, 2023, shows the construction site for its joint electric vehicle battery manufacturing complex with Ford Motor Co. in Glendale in the U.S. state of Kentucky. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The project is part of the US$11.4 billion investment the two companies' joint venture, BlueOval SK (BOSK), announced in September 2021, to build twin EV battery plants in Kentucky and a third one in Tennessee.

The steel frames installed at the site, weighing about 8,000-10,000 tons, only make up half of what will fill one entire factory, or a quarter of what will be the whole two factories.

"The walking distance from one end to the other end of the factory is over 1 kilometer," Park Chang-seok, a project leader at SK On's BOSK construction unit, said during the press tour.

The buildings will be about 30 meters tall, equivalent to the height of an average 12-floor residential apartment in South Korea, except that the BOSK plants will consist of only one to two stories, Park added.

The manufacturing campus, named BlueOval SK Battery Park, broke ground in Kentucky last month, putting the joint venture on a smooth path that will help Ford accelerate its electrification drive and SK to make further inroads into America.

Once completed, the plants will have an annual run rate of 129 gigawatt hours (GWh) in production capacity, enough to power about 1.2 million units of the Ford F-150 Lightning EV pickups.

Ford plans to manufacture half of its global vehicles fully electric by 2030.

SK On, the battery-making unit under SK Group, South Korea's second-largest conglomerate, has its own ambitions to become the world's top player over the next decade and hopes the joint U.S. plants will serve as a game changer.

"The BOSK plants will account for the bulk of the 150 GWh production capacity expected for our North American operations," Shin Dong-yun, a BOSK director, said. "We need BOSK to become the global number one."

Cho Nam-hyeon, a project engineer of Barton Malow, the lead contractor for BlueOval SK's electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant in Glendale, Kentucky, introduces the construction site during a press tour on Jan. 8, 2023, in this photo provided by SK On. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

SK On, which was split off from SK Innovation Co., the largest energy company in South Korea, trails behind its bigger local rivals, including LG Energy Solution Ltd., the world's No. 2 battery maker.

SK On has two standalone EV battery factories in Georgia, with the first one in operation and the second one to start operation this year.

The construction has reached a few interesting milestones along the way, data provided by SK On has shown.

To date, it has moved some 4.3 million cubic yards of soil, enough to fill 200 American football stadiums, and laid 283,000 tons of stone, equivalent to the weight of nearly 1,350 locomotives.

Crews have poured 66,000 cubic yards of concrete -- enough to fill 356 backyard swimming pools -- and installed 3,300 tons of rebar ties to reinforce the concrete, equivalent to the weight of more than 470 elephants.

It has installed 1,300 deep foundations, or structures installed underground to transfer the building loads, equal to the height of nearly 60 Empire State Buildings stacked end to end.

Leonardo Orozco, a project engineer from Michigan, said he can't imagine visiting his family in Mexico anytime soon with "all this massive program going on."

"I don't think I can afford the time for a while," he said.

The three plants will also help create 11,000 new jobs in and around the regions, Shin said, contributing to the local economy.

Moreover, the project also means more new orders for South Korean component suppliers, as BOSK will be using Korean-made construction and other equipment for the factories.

The Kentucky plants plan to go into operation in the first quarter of 2025, and the third plant, to be built in Stanton, Tennessee, by 2026, following trial runs.

"It's definitely satisfying being on the forefront of this technology and knowing that I'm contributing to the green energy movement," Tyler Shovein, a project engineer with Barton Malow, said. "I'm very excited to be part of the project."

This photo, provided by SK On Co. on Jan. 8, 2023, shows an aerial view of the construction site for its joint electric vehicle battery manufacturing complex with Ford Motor Co. in Glendale in the U.S. state of Kentucky. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

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