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Panasonic’s battery plant is already transforming De Soto, Kansas. It’s only halfway built

A press tour of the new Panasonic battery plant in De Soto passed by the southern side of the new facility, which will cover approximately 300 acres when completed.
Julia Schnittker
/
Johnson County Post
A press tour of the new Panasonic battery plant in De Soto passed by the southern side of the new facility, which will cover approximately 300 acres when completed.

The Japanese electronics company's vision for a sprawling factory in northeast Kansas is taking shape quickly. Executives say it will employ 4,000 people directly, and help create an environment for even more jobs elsewhere in the region.

The water towers and some low-slung buildings still stand, but otherwise the old Sunflower Army ammunition plant is a site massively transformed since the day Panasonic broke ground a year and a half ago.

Just to the north of the towers, exterior construction is complete on the first of two wings of the mammoth plant, with interior equipment gradually being moved inside. To the northeast, a substation gleams in the midday sun, waiting to be energized in about two weeks. Fire tanks, sewer and water lines are done and most of the steel is up on the second wing.

Once completed, the $4 billion, 4.7-million-square-foot facility will be the largest battery manufacturing plant in the world, said Jeff van Heel, who runs construction on the site.

Van Heel, Panasonic Energy of North America president Allan Swan and other executives hosted a media tour Thursday of the construction site. When production equipment installation is included, the facility is a little less than 50% built out, van Heel said. But officials plan to start production gradually in the parts that are fully ready, so that the company can start making the batteries in the first quarter of 2025.

Factory will employ 4,000. Entry-level positions will start in the $20- to $29-an-hour range

The new plant sits in the shadow of the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant’s water towers.
Julia Schnittker
/
Johnson County Post
The new plant sits in the shadow of the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant’s water towers.

Once fully operational, the plant will have four production lines and 4,000 employees, making enough batteries to power a half million electric vehicles a year.

Hiring is beginning to ramp up, said Kristen Walters, vice president of human resources. The company has about 180 Kansas employees and expects to employ 500 by the end of the year, she said. But recruitment will begin in earnest as the production date gets closer.

Eventually, about 4,000 people will work at the facility. Walters said about 80% of them will be at the production level, with wages for entry-level positions likely to start in the $20- to $29-an-hour range.

The plant at De Soto’s Astra Enterprise Park is not the first EV battery plant Panasonic has built in America. The company has large factory in Reno, Nevada, that will produce 2 billion batteries a year. Swan said he expects to beat that with the De Soto plant.

Executive expects ups and downs as market gains traction

Based on the Reno plant, which started mass production in 2015, the regional economic impact will be big, he said. “In Nevada, the economic forecasts we gave, we blew past them all,” he said. At that plant, every new job at Panasonic translated into three non-Panasonic jobs created, he said.

Although American automakers have scaled back their commitment to battery-powered vehicles, Swan said ups and downs are to be expected in a brand new industry.

“We’re not concerned at this point,” he said, explaining that the number of EVs sold is still increasing year to year. The company has a good handle on changing demands, he said.

President of Panasonic North America Allan Swan addressed the press at the company’s De Soto battery manufacturing facility.
Julia Schnittker
/
Johnson County Post
President of Panasonic North America Allan Swan addressed the press at the company’s De Soto battery manufacturing facility.

Swan also emphasized that Panasonic has the flexibility to handle changes in technology. For instance, changes in lithium ion battery technology have been made four times in the past seven years in Nevada, he said.

He added that it’s unlikely technology will move away from standard lithium ion batteries any time soon. New lithium iron phosphate batteries, for example, may be cheaper but don’t perform as well, Swan said. “There’s always a space for lithium ion batteries.”

Swan also said the company remains committed to a low carbon footprint and will work with Evergy to that end. Evergy announced last year that it was scaling back plans for more renewable energy. When asked, he did not rule out the possibility of building a solar facility to help reduce the carbon footprint.

As for the water towers, only one is still usable, van Heel said. They are visibly rusted and may eventually need paint. But no decision has yet been made on what will happen to them.

This story was originally published by the Johnson County Post.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Contact her at roxieham@gmail.com.
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