Durham chip manufacturer plans $5B expansion in Chatham County

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ByCindy Bae via WTVD logo
Friday, September 9, 2022
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A Durham silicon chip manufacturer announced plans for a major expansion to Chatham County.

PITTSBORO, N.C. (WTVD) -- A Durham silicon chip manufacturer announced plans for a major expansion to Chatham County.

Wolfspeed is set to bring 1,800 new jobs with a $5 billion investment over the next 20 years at the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site near the county's western border. The site is huge, spanning more than 1,800 acres.

"It is a day of celebration. Today is another step in our drive toward a clean energy economy," Gov. Roy Cooper said to kick off the announcement at 10 a.m. Friday.

Cooper said the semiconductors that Wolfspeed will manufacture in Chatham County will be used in electric vehicles, energy storage, offshore wind farms and other clean energy applications. The investment is being heralded as a step toward the state following through with a recently passed bipartisan law requiring the state to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 70% by 2030 and to be carbon neutral by 2050.

"Our North Carolina economy will see a $17.5 billion impact over the next 20 years," he said.

Wolfspeed's Durham facility is already the world's largest silicon carbide materials factory. However, the Chatham expansion will allow more than 10 times the output of the Durham facility.

"Silicon carbide is a new technology that's more efficient," Lowe said. "It means you waste less energy. What we announced today, will have greater than ten times the output of that," Wolfspeed CEO Gregg Lowe said.

Lowe said Wolfspeed is also working closely with NC A&T to continue developing the skilled workforce needed to run the manufacturing plant. The company brings in about 150 interns per year--positions that are paid and often end with a job at the company.

"We are very, very active in recruiting locally, both at the experience level, but even more importantly, at the college level. It's one of the reasons we picked this area, is the strong relationships we have with the universities for workforce development," he said.

North Carolina's attraction comes amid a nationwide shortage of semiconductor chips during the pandemic.

"The pandemic really exposed vulnerabilities in our entire supply chain and that's been because we were so reliant on countries like China who produce the majority of semiconductor chips around the world," White House Assistant Press Secretary Emilie Simons said. "And that meant that things like dishwashers and phones and cars were all harder to find, and therefore, more expensive. So if we make more of these semiconductor chips here at home, like with this announcement from Wolfspeed today in North Carolina, we're going to have more economic security and national security as well."

Simons said the new semiconductor materials Wolfspeed is producing will be used to increase the efficiency of electric vehicle batteries and electric vehicle charging.

"So this is really the clean energy of tomorrow that's starting right in Chatham County," Simons said.

The House on Thursday passed the Chips and Science Act, a $280 billion bipartisan bill that's part of federal efforts to help the U.S. keep up in global competition.

"These supply chains are up for grabs," chief economist Ron Chatterji said. "We shouldn't just assume they're going to come to North Carolina or the United States of America. In fact, companies around the world are competing to get exactly those investments at home."

The U.S. has seen several announcements in the last few weeks of companies investing in states, such as North Carolina.

"There are companies all around the country that are investing significant dollars in communities like North Carolina," Simons said. "We are going to take the next step forward to make more advanced materials, like Wolfspeed is doing, to create more efficient products."

The jobs announcement marked another big economic win for central North Carolina during the past 17 months.

Apple announced plans in April 2021 to build its first East Coast campus in Research Triangle Park between Raleigh and Durham. Toyota revealed in December it would build a battery plant in Randolph County, followed the next month by Boom Supersonic picking Greensboro for its first full-scale manufacturing facility for next-generation supersonic passenger jets.

Chatham County also got the brass ring in March when Vietnamese automaker VinFast said it would build its first North American plant there to make electric vehicles. The investment, which could generate 7,500 jobs, would follow several near-misses by the state to attract a carmaker.

Wolfspeed had considered the expansion in Marcy, New York, where its new production facility is located and where it had additional space for expansion, according to a state Commerce Department document.

Lowe said after the announcement that the company looked at several states, and New York "put together a really strong package."

But the winning site's proximity to Wolfspeed's current operations in Durham, along with the company's relationship with North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, a historically Black college, "gave it a little bit of a tipping edge," he said. Wolfspeed on Friday also announced expanded initiatives to attract the school's engineering students to the semiconductor field.

Graduate students at North Carolina State University in Raleigh helped start what is now Wolfspeed in 1987.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.