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Georgia, a GOP-led state, courts clean energy jobs without harping on climate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Over the years, Democrats have almost exclusively led the charge to curb carbon emissions. But green industries are expanding, so some Republican-led states are racing to attract companies like electric vehicle makers. WABE's Sam Gringlas reports from Atlanta.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Georgia has been making a bold claim lately.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN KEMP: I intend for Georgia to be recognized as the electric mobility capital of America.

The e-mobility capital of America.

The e-mobility capital of the world.

GRINGLAS: That's Georgia's Republican Governor Brian Kemp. He recently made this pledge at Tallulah Gorge State Park. It's one of six state parks installing electric vehicle chargers. A short jaunt from the 200-foot suspension bridge across the gorge, Kemp plugged in a forest green Rivian electric truck for the inaugural charge.

KEMP: All right. Y'all ready? Here we go.

GRINGLAS: In some years, Georgia is now edging out Michigan as a top draw for new investments from auto manufacturers and suppliers. Hyundai, Kia and the startup Rivian will soon make electric vehicles here. Battery makers and suppliers are setting up shop. A solar panel company has promised a multibillion-dollar expansion.

KEMP: There you go. All lit green, so we're charging now.

GRINGLAS: George has helped lure these companies with billions in incentives. Kemp says the new jobs will be a game changer for Georgia's economy. What you don't hear much about from Kemp? Climate change, the thing underlying this drive to electrify.

KEMP: Regardless of where your politics or your beliefs are on the climate, I mean, Georgians are good stewards of the environment.

GRINGLAS: Kemp's approach could be a blueprint for likeminded Republicans, courting clean energy jobs without harping on climate, promoting EV production without nudging people to buy them.

KEMP: I believe the best way to let a market develop is to let the consumer drive that. And, you know, Biden administration has been forcing the market on people, much like the vaccine was forced on people. And it turned some people off of it.

GRINGLAS: Kemp says the government shouldn't shape what people buy, whether it's a Rivian versus a Ford or a hydrogen car versus an electric one.

ANNE BLAIR: We need to be supporting a broad market, but electrification clearly has one.

GRINGLAS: Anne Blair is with the Electrification Coalition, which has cheered both state support and also federal efforts, like the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

BLAIR: Really, bill and IRA (laughter), as I affectionately discuss them.

GRINGLAS: IRA, aka the Inflation Reduction Act, included a consumer tax credit for some EVs. Blair and Democrats think Kemp's criticism of them is misguided.

BLAIR: Government incentives can really help build consumer and public confidence and ultimately help boost up the industry overall.

GRINGLAS: Outside an Atlanta warehouse, electric vans are lined up in a row. Inside, a dozen or so people involved with the EV industry crowd a long conference table. This is known as the EV Braintrust. And its members are giving some updates.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We've built over 7,000 stations from coast to coast.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm a new truck sales manager for the state of Georgia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is the only multi-alternative fuel conference.

GRINGLAS: The brain trust organizer, Tim Echols, is vice chair of Georgia's utility commission.

TIM ECHOLS: I have been a cheerleader and an evangelist for alternative fuel.

GRINGLAS: Echols is also a Republican and tells me about dining with some solar enthusiasts.

ECHOLS: And I said, I hope you guys learn to speak Republican. They took that to heart. I don't know that the EV community has learned to do this yet.

GRINGLAS: Even today, some Republicans remain entirely skeptical.

ECHOLS: It is important, I think, when you're dealing with Republicans to kind of lead with economic development, with saving money, as opposed to something like climate change or global warming that Republicans kind of push back against.

GRINGLAS: It turns out many states without so-called climate ambition - think Louisiana, Texas, Wyoming - are very interested in clean energy jobs. Environmentalists are listening but still insist state policy will need to address climate directly.

MICHAEL O'REILLY: I'm a birder. You can bird just about anywhere. There was a red-shouldered hawk, you might have heard.

GRINGLAS: Mike O'Reilly is with the Nature Conservancy in Georgia. We're strolling through Piedmont Park in midtown Atlanta.

O'REILLY: We're focused on outcomes, you know? So if the state is reducing the carbon footprint of the state and providing jobs along the way as they do it, that is fantastic.

GRINGLAS: Along for the nature walk is Monica Thornton, the group's executive director. Thornton says conservation has been a bipartisan issue. Enacting statewide climate goals is a harder sell. But she hopes the EV boom is helping leaders look beyond politics.

MONICA THORNTON: We're going to have to decide whether or not we want this place to continue to be a place where our kids can run and play. And we're going to have to decide that that's important enough to put all of those other things aside.

GRINGLAS: O'Reilly tells me the state has been awarded a grant to develop a climate action plan for the first time. There won't likely be a flashy announcement like with a new EV facility. But O'Reilly says both are crucial for the state and the country.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Tallulah Falls, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.

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