BLYTHEWOOD, S.C. — Gregory Bledsoe, 23, gazed out over the dimly lit field bordering the town cemetery in Blythewood, S.C., just outside of the state capital of Columbia. The distant sound of Amtrak’s Silver Star line seemed to get louder as he shook his head at the pile of construction debris behind him.

“I’ve been here my whole life, and I remember when it was a lot smaller,” he said. “I don’t like seeing it grow up.”

Bledsoe’s hometown will be the site of Scout Motors’ first all-electric manufacturing plant, scheduled to begin vehicle production by the end of 2026. Even though it will bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in investment, many residents were not excited about the progress and felt left out of the process. 

Scout’s expansion is one of several ongoing projects in the state, supported by Gov. Henry McMaster’s executive order in 2022 prioritizing EV company recruitment and President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, giving companies incentives to set up shop domestically and to manufacture zero-emission vehicles.

But Bledsoe is among the residents who said he’s pessimistic about the recent push toward electric vehicle investment in his home state and on a nationwide scale.

Only 38% of Americans say they’re very or somewhat likely to consider an electric vehicle when buying their next car, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year.

The plant, however, is garnering support from some residents.

“I’ve got 12 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, four children, a lot of people I’m concerned about with regard to climate change,” Blythewood resident James DeBruhl said, who was interviewed waiting to vote during Saturday’s Republican primary. “When I go in there and vote, I vote with them in mind.” 

While Scout is one of the first major manufacturing companies to break ground near the capital city, the state has successfully attracted many others from the automotive sector. Since the 1990s, BMW, Mercedes Benz and Volvo have flocked to the state to establish U.S. manufacturing facilities.

That’s made the area much more competitive on an international scale, South Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce Harry Lightsey said in an interview with Medill News Service.

Lightsey said it was important for the governor to retain and recruit automotive jobs to ensure that the state doesn’t become a “technological obsolescence.” He sees companies like Scout Motors as long-term investments that will lead the industry for decades.

“The automotive space is our largest manufacturing sector, employing 75,000 South Carolinians,” Lightsey said. “We have a well-established reputation as a state that’s able to provide a workforce that’s well-trained with the right skill sets to be successful.”

South Carolina is attracting other companies in the electric vehicle sector. Redwood Materials, a battery production and recycling company, selected South Carolina as its second U.S. manufacturing site for its $3.5 billion plant, attracted in large part by the state’s university training programs, according to Morgan Crapps, director of public affairs and media relations.

“South Carolina has been a longtime leader in the automotive industry, but as we start to see it changing, I think Redwood is a company that can close the loop and be both at the beginning and the end of an automotive lifecycle,” Crapps said.

She also cited the state’s business-friendly practices –  from low taxes and utility costs to strong support from local and state government – as reasons why Redwood Materials chose the state to expand beyond its primary site in Nevada.

The Palmetto State exempts electric vehicle companies from paying state property taxes and sales taxes on manufacturing machinery and industrial power, codifying financial benefits for manufacturers moving to or expanding in South Carolina.

Redwood Materials was greeted with support from both Democrats and Republicans when drawing up plans for the recycling plant, according to Crapps.

“Scout’s CEO said the thing that impressed him about our state was our ability to work together across state, local and even federal entities to bring results that we were able to negotiate in roughly 60 days, much faster than what he experienced in other states,” said Lightsey.

Such factors also prompted Germany to see America as a robust automotive partner in the 1990s and open up its first stateside BMW plant, said Conor Harrison, a professor at the the University of South Carolina who studies the relationship between energy and society.

Though the eight million square-foot assembly plant employs more than 11,000 South Carolinians, Harrison said it transformed the landscape of Spartanburg County.

“You go to these places, and they’ve become McMansion communities with a booming downtown. BMW has completely changed the trajectory of that area,” he said.

That type of rapid expansion, Bledsoe noted, is unwelcome in the town of Blythewood. 

Jeff Buck, a product specialist at Jim Hudson Chevrolet in Richland County, echoed his skepticism, contending that electric vehicles are an unreliable choice for families seeking to take long road trips this summer.

With the Biden administration set to roll back strict guidelines on tailpipe emissions that would encourage drivers to switch to electric vehicles, car manufacturers aren’t in a rush to make the switch, and consumer sentiment remains apathetic, according to Harrison.

“If you live in the city, it’s a great deal. But think about it – if you drive across the country with your family and you have to stop and charge it every couple of hours. Road trips simply aren’t feasible,” Buck said.

While NIMBYism might be at play — focused on the disruption caused by Scout’s construction site in Blythewood — residents say they’re most doubtful about whether Biden can equip the nation with the infrastructure necessary to support EVs from coast to coast.

Adoption in the U.S. has been slower than other countries, but the Biden administration has set a goal of having 50% of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. be electric by 2030. 

And since Biden took office in 2021, his administration has installed 170,000 publicly available EV chargers nationwide. But many residents of the Palmetto State aren’t sold on the progress.

“Blythewood is losing its little town feel,” said poll worker Kris White. “And what’s worse is, they don’t have the infrastructure. If the roads can’t handle it, we’re all screwed.”