f you’ve ever handled a pair of battery charging cables, you know the importance of separation. The same goes for inside the battery: To avoid short circuits, there needs to be a permeable, polymeric membrane between the cathode (the positive) and the anode (the negative). You need a company to make that thing.
In March, the only U.S.-owned and U.S.-based producer of a “wet-process” separator for lithium batteries announced it plans to invest $1.5 billion and create up to 642 jobs at a new plant in Terre Haute, Indiana. The company, based in Lebanon, Oregon, will build on a 350-acre greenfield site in the Vigo County Industrial Park II that for 60 years was occupied by Pfizer before it closed up shop about a decade ago. ENTEK plans to initially construct four buildings covering 1.4 million sq. ft. — “equipped with equipment built at current ENTEK manufacturing facilities in Oregon and Nevada and including specialty biaxial stretching equipment supplied by Brueckner Group USA,” the company said. When fully built out in two phases, the facility — backed by a $200 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as part of the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — will produce enough separators for around 3.5 million EVs.
Larry Keith, CEO and Owner, ENTEK
“We chose Terre Haute for many reasons,” said ENTEK CEO Larry Keith, “including the excellent workforce opportunity, the incredible support provided by Steve Witt and the [Terre Haute] Economic Development Corporation, a nearly shovel-ready construction site with available utilities located in an industrial park, excellent vocational education, and the business-friendly incentives from both the state and local governments.” Those amount to up to $8 million in tax credits from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), plus a slew of other grants focused on training, smart manufacturing technologies and innovation. Additional incentives may be forthcoming from Vigo County and from Duke Energy.
Carl Quesinberry, senior director, North America Consulting Group, for Avison Young, advised ENTEK on the site selection after meeting company leaders at a conference. It was a good match: Both his site selection advisory career and the company have been around about 35 years. He says ENTEK stands out as a company that really means it when it comes to community commitment — living out its slogan: “Raising Expectations. Keeping Them There.” This project, which traveled under the code name “Project Tonic Water,” aims to set and meet expectations from the get-go.
These were probably the most focused and driven clients I’ve ever had the honor to represent,” Quesinberry says, “with incredible character. Their focus on being community-minded was on par with finding a place to run their business. I found that so admirable.
Kimberly Medford, President, ENTEK
“In the communities we are in today, we pay a lot of attention to what the gaps are,” Kim Medford, ENTEK’s president, tells me from the home office in Linn County, Oregon. Years ago in the small community, she says, “we identified that we live in a cold climate, so let’s get coats to kids. We provided 1,500 coats last year, down to requested colors, sizes and styles. We also have some food programs. It’s just who we are as a company.” One question they asked everywhere they went during the site search was ‘Help us understand what the need is in your community. Is it a food desert?’ Everybody has a different answer. We know we have this many hundreds of people traveling across state lines to work elsewhere, so helping people be closer to home with employment was an issue in Terre Haute.”
“A lot of people don’t realize when you look at Vigo County and three neighboring counties we have about 7,000 people who drive out of our area to go to work,” says Steve Witt, president of Terre Haute Economic Development Corp. “They may be going across the line to Illinois or other counties. This is an opportunity for people who live here if they’d like to ditch the long commute.”
Meanwhile, ENTEK is proactively engaging with the school system early. “This past week we spoke with the high school superintendents,” says Medford. “We’re having conversations in April 2023 knowing we are a couple years out.”
“They have a great education system through Ivy Tech in Indiana,” Keith says. “It’s important to them that we work to put an apprenticeship program together.” It also helps, says Witt, that the area already has a plastics extrusion skills base.
“We were driving around looking at the industrial park and so on, and they asked about some of the things to do to be involved in the community,” says Witt, who quickly learned about the coat donations and related programs with schools attended by children of low to moderate income families. “Some companies talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. But I could tell they were very sincere in wanting to be involved in such an initiative here.” As a longtime director of Terre Haute’s department of redevelopment, he knows the challenges to be faced in an entitlement city where federal block grant monies help struggling neighborhoods. “Being able to meld the two, and perhaps indirectly benefiting some of our residents, that’s pretty neat,” he says.
‘What’s Important to You?’
Medford says the help provided by the federal incentives is immeasurable. “We sold most of our product for lithium batteries to China until 2014 when China stood up tariffs and shut out U.S. companies and anyone else,” she says. The programs DOE is standing up now are “really jumpstarting the battery industry,” she says. ENTEK leaders recently took part in a White House Battery Workforce Challenge event. One of Medford’s takeaways? “When you’re already doing something, it’s easy to commit to doing it some more,” she says. “Technical education and apprenticeship? Yes, let’s do more of that because we know it's great for everybody.”
In addition to production of separators for lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries, ENTEK also manufactures equipment for the plastics industry and creates high-performance materials for a broad range of energy storage and functional membrane applications. Medford says expansions have been mostly via acquisition and have included growth in the UK, Indonesia, Japan, California and, most recently, in Henderson, Nevada, where equipment is produced.
Keith says the first question Quesinberry asked him and his colleagues was what was important to them. From there a decision tree was built out of such factors as availability of power and educated people, proximity to end users, ease of doing business and availability of a shovel-ready site large enough to accommodate ENTEK’s plans. “We put that together and searched mostly east of the Mississippi,” Keith says. “Speed was important to us.”
Medford clarifies that the vertically integrated company is not leaving its home base in Oregon. “We have an incredible investment and company here, and we actually are growing. Much of the equipment will be built here and in Henderson. We’re expanding everywhere.” For this project, she says, “It was really important to be closer to the customer base.”
“Part of that is driven by ESG,” Keith adds. Proximity means fewer fuel-burning logistics miles. Beyond that, a factor that separates this separator company from others in the world is ENTEK’s use of environmentally sustainable processing techniques, “unlike the methylene chloride extraction systems used by lithium battery separator producers in China, Korea, Japan and Europe,” the company says.
The project team identified around 100 sites across the country before narrowing it down to eight for the physical site visit stage, all in a line from Alabama to Indiana,” Keith says. But the very proximity to the growing cadre of battery customers in that corridor also raised a concern about the ability to access a labor force.
“Competition for people and electricity,” Medford says. “Two things are driving siting in the U.S. right now, and those are the two.”
“Regrettably, there were several jurisdictions that had made representations they could provide the power, but as we advanced negotiations, it became evident they could not provide the necessary power in the time frame we needed to meet our production goal,” Quesinberry says. That shifted the priorities of the site selection matrix to power being the No. 1 criterion over labor, and “narrowed the sites dramatically,” he says, noting that some communities and utilities have been more astute than others in their capacity planning. The DOE funds required certain elements to be shovel-ready, and “not all communities have those done and lined up,” he says.
In Terre Haute, Duke Energy, the power provider, has a site readiness program. But the site under scrutiny was not part of it. That didn’t matter, say the ENTEK leaders.
“We can’t say enough good things about Duke,” says Medford. “They are fantastic to work with, and you wouldn’t know it was outside their program.”
“Duke stepped up and made sure we had the power we needed,” Keith adds. Whereas the utility whose territory included a leading candidate site further South had not been able to assure provision of power quality and quantity.
“One thing people better pay attention to is power generation,” Keith says. “The power grid in this country needs a major investment because it’s going to be a limiting factor.”
Witt says the chosen property was acquired by his organization in 2012 as an extension of an existing industrial park. Given its rail and power connectivity, “it was pretty close to being a shovel-ready site ready to go,” he tells me. “We’ve had a lot of interest in the property over the past year primarily because of the rail availability. ENTEK came along at the right time to capitalize on what we had to offer.”
It's a Process
That happened in October 2022, followed by a personal visit by leaders on the company jet piloted by Larry Keith himself. Things really started cooking in January 2023, Witt says, as his team provided the company’s team with various surveys, land title information, endangered species, geotech and environmental reports. All those things were steadily put in place in the years since Pfizer left.
Asked how much pressure there may have been to break up the parcel and sell it off in parts, Witt says, “There was quite a bit of pressure because Pfizer was a fantastic employer in our community for so many years. For them to leave was quite a blow, and some would argue we haven’t fully recovered from that.” The site itself didn’t need much additional investment, whereas the primary industrial park next door had received tens of millions of dollars in investment over about 35 years as county, city and utility providers extended their services, including transport corridors. “ENTEK will benefit from the rail improvements we’ve made because the rail sits on the borderline between the parks,” Witt says.
“It’s really not a real estate exercise,” says Quesinberry. “It’s understanding the operational needs of an organization and getting it to work.” In this case, those needs included a critical need for power, a requirement that initially was slated at 300 MW but was reduced to 150 MW when it was decided to go forward with plans for two separate facilities
Quesinberry says if getting published is the currency for earning a PhD, certainty is the currency for siting a plant. “Obtaining that certainty for clients is paramount, as early as possible,” he says. “For communities, I think the takeaway is to do as much as you can to really have sites shovel-ready by the most stringent definition. You may have a great community and a great site, but if you can’t achieve critical milestones, they shake your hand and eat lunch and then go down the road.”
They’re all good words to the wise for the future: Once this facility is well on its way, plans are in the works for a second equivalent facility somewhere in the country.
St. Louis Region Offers Rail-Accessible, Developer-Ready Sites
The St. Louis region is streamlining the site selection process for rail-accessible sites across the bi-state area. Through a focused collaborative effort led by the St. Louis Regional Freightway, the region’s Class I railroads and economic development organizations, brokers and business leaders on both sides of the Mississippi River in Illinois and Missouri have identified the top rail-accessible industrial real estate sites in the region. They are also taking on previously overlooked sites with potential for rail access.
Site Selection Criteria
The Development Ready Rail Land Sites list starts with sites that have at least 20 acres available and are either shovel-ready or have development plans, active owners, or marketing in place to be considered near-shovel ready. Shovel-ready indicates potential pre-development work has been completed and construction can quickly begin.
Collaborative Effort Highlights 11 Locations
The St. Louis Regional Freightway reviewed multiple sites throughout a 15-county area and answered the question of whether those being explored were rail accessible or have potential rail access. Eleven locations featuring heavy industrial user zoning that include service by at least one of the region’s six Class I railroads connecting to the East, West and Gulf coasts are ready for developers who want to take advantage of the strong rail infrastructure and multimodal advantages in the bi-state area.
Learn more at https://www.thefreightway.com/real-estate/rail-access/