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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023

Battery Maker Charging Up Antelope Valley

The decision by Chinese firm BYD Co. Ltd. to open an assembly plant in Lancaster has officials confident the move will open the door for more manufacturing jobs to come to the region. BYD, an electric vehicle and battery manufacturer, has bought one building in which it will make electric buses and a second building for battery pack assembly. This would make for the second location for BYD in Southern California, with the other its North American headquarters in Los Angeles that opened in late 2010. The manufacturing operations will begin on May 1, and BYD already has seven people hired for the facility, including a general manager, with additional employees planned, said Micheal Austin, vice president of BYD America. “The location of the plant is important,” Austin said. “We have R&D jobs (at the headquarters) that will support the factory. We needed to leverage that.” Long Beach Transit has ordered 10 buses that will be made in Lancaster, with deliveries to begin in early 2014. It’s the first U.S. public transportation agency to buy buses from BYD, which has previously supplied to private bus companies, Austin said. Founded in 1995, BYD started as a supplier of cell phone batteries. The Shenzhen company later added cell phone components, LED lighting, photovoltaic cells and automobiles to its product offerings. The company was given a big boost when it was championed by billionaire Warren Buffet, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in 2008 took a minority stake in BYD, which is listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Although the company has struggled to meet expectations to produce a successful electric car for the American marketplace, the implications of BYD settling in the Antelope Valley to produce buses could be enormous. In Shenzhen, with a population of 15 million, where city leaders are electrifying its public transportation infrastructure, BYD has supplied more than 800 buses, Austin said. Officials from the Antelope Valley and civic leaders familiar with the company said this has the potential to become a magnet for further economic development. Even Gov. Jerry Brown recognized the importance of the company when he visited its Shenzhen headquarters for a tour during a recent trade mission to China. As the United States’ window on Asia, the Los Angeles area has many benefits for foreign companies to want to do business here. Geography is just a start, while Southern California has large populations from many Asian countries. “International businesses like to locate in those types of areas,” said Austin Beutner, the former deputy Los Angeles mayor who was instrumental in getting BYD to locate its North American headquarters in the city. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said he believes that with a company the size and scope of BYD opening a manufacturing plant, other companies will take notice. “It is natural you follow what people of stature do,” he said, adding that BYD could be the first of many Chinese businesses to locate in the high desert. In neighboring Palmdale, Japanese rail car manufacturer Kinkisharyo International LLC is in negotiations to take space on Los Angeles World Airport property where it will perform final assembly on light rail cars for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority. Electric roots BYD’s decision to open the bus manufacturing plant has its origins in an earlier project brokered in 2010 by Parris. The company supplied battery storage units to L.A. homebuilder KB Home for houses in Lancaster using solar panels. Parris kept up the relationship with BYD in the hopes of eventually getting the company to invest more in the city. He visited China multiple times and even had city staff take Mandarin language lessons. “The mayor deserves the credit,” said Vern Lawson, economic development director for Lancaster. “He was tenacious.” The relationship with the city and the business friendly atmosphere at City Hall was only partly why BYD came to Lancaster. Critical to the decision was the building on 13 acres it will move into in the 46000 block of Seventh Street West. As the former headquarters of Rexhall Industries, a recreational vehicle manufacturer, the plant is zoned and permitted for BYD to make buses. Rexhall is relocating its headquarters to another building it owns on 23rd Street West just south of Avenue H. “We found a factory to suit our needs and that played the highest part,” Austin said. (BYD has an option to buy an additional 15 acres adjoining its property.) BYD also bought a former Budweiser distribution facility off of Avenue K near the Metrolink tracks. The company will use the facility to assemble battery packs that can be used in the buses and for other uses, Austin said. The repurposing of empty industrial buildings is welcome, said Kimberly Maevers, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. “This is a classic reutilization of the resources we have on the ground and the infrastructure that is already here and putting people to work,” Maevers said. Austin would not disclose the purchase price BYD paid for the two buildings. Critics unhappy The Long Beach Transit Board in late March approved an award of $12.1 million to BYD for 10 electric buses. Critics of the decision opposed giving the work to a Chinese company because the money came from a federal grant. However, Austin, said his company has solid experience providing electric buses, noting the substantial orders filled in Shenzhen. He added that BYD anticipates receiving another public transportation order significantly larger than the Long Beach order. Meanwhile, the Antelope Valley Transit Authority is considering adding electric buses to its fleet. The agency would start with two buses as part of a demonstration project, said Executive Director Julie Austin. The authority has checked out buses from BYD as well as its competitors Proterra Inc., of Greenville S.C. and Complete Coach Works, headquartered in Riverside. The agency would choose which manufacturer to go with through a competitive bidding process, Julie Austin said. “We cannot move until we gain funding,” she said, adding the authority is looking into both federal and state grants.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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