US Automotive Manufacturing Hubs Exposed to Climate Risk

Introduction: Growing Investment in US Manufacturing

Manufacturing stands out as a key part of President Biden’s America Jobs Plan and there is wide support for strengthening American manufacturing. Historically, manufacturing was a backbone of the domestic economy, contributing around 25% to national GDP, but that number fell to 11% in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for resilient and local supply chains, and provides an opportunity to transition to a low-carbon economy as part of the recovery. Investing in the domestic manufacturing industry offers a lifeline to new sectors, such as electric vehicles (EVs), which can introduce clean energy jobs nationwide. The American Jobs Plan offers “$52 billion to increase access to capital for domestic manufacturers, focusing on successful existing access programs and targeting rural manufacturing and clean energy” and “a $174 billion investment to win the EV market.” While it’s unclear if this exact proposal will pass, it is likely that there will be growing investment in domestic manufacturing. At the same time, increasingly frequent climate-driven extreme weather events demonstrate the need to build climate resilience into new manufacturing investments.

In this analysis, we explore municipal climate risk exposure in states with significant and growing automotive manufacturing industries. Understanding municipal climate risk is important because in addition to the direct physical threat to manufacturing plants, climate emergencies cause loss of life, hinder commutes and disrupt supply chains by closing roads, airports and other infrastructure. We leverage our county climate risk scores, which quantify population-weighted exposure to floods, heat stress, hurricanes & typhoons, sea level rise, water stress and wildfires, over the 2030-2040 horizon.

Automotive Manufacturing in Michigan & Tennessee

Both Michigan and Tennessee have seen “real manufacturing GDP grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 3% between 2009 and 2019, about twice as high as the national rate.” Michigan automotive manufacturing generated around $225 billion and 712,000 jobs in 2019. Automotive manufacturing is Tennessee’s dominant manufacturing sector and the state’s employment in the  sector is 3.3 times higher than national average.

In addition to serving as hubs for traditional automotive manufacturing, Michigan and Tennessee are both seeing increasing investment in EVs, which provide a growing opportunity for these states to continue revitalizing their automobile manufacturing sectors while creating jobs and growing their economies. However, when making capital-intensive investments in new facilities and equipment it is important to consider the long-term risks these assets may face, to protect the company’s investment, and also to ensure that the regional economic benefits are seen.

Flood Risk

In addition to damaging equipment and products, floods can also cause upstream and downstream supply chain disruptions and impact manufacturing productivity if employees cannot get to work. Moreover, since manufacturing can serve as a regional anchor, employees living one or two counties over may be affected by floods that avoid the facility itself.

Figure 1. Michigan county-level exposure to flood risk.

Of Michigan’s 83 counties, 70% are exposed to high flood risk (Figure 1). In 2020, flood damage in Midland County was assessed at over $200 million as heavy rains broke dams and led to significant flooding. Further south,  Wayne County has long been a nexus for the automotive industry and is home to the headquarters of both General Motors and Ford. Ford pledged $850 million  and Fiat Chrysler is investing $4.5 billion to build assembly plants and expand operations there. The county also holds 23% of US automotive production and 76% of total automotive Research & Development. While Figure 1 shows that Wayne County is at a lower risk for flooding than the surrounding counties, all manufacturing in the area would be affected by delivery delays and commute disruptions if the regional transportation infrastructure is not prepared for increased floods.

Figure 2. Tennessee county-level exposure to floods.

In Tennessee, about 90% of the 95 counties are exposed to high flood risk (Figure 2). We find that most key manufacturing hubs are at high risk of flooding, while others are adjacent to highly exposed counties. Williamson County, where General Motors is planning a multi-billion dollar EV battery plant, neighbors Davidson County, the epicenter of catastrophic flooding, and multiple deaths in March 2021. This flood event ultimately led to a Federal Disaster Declaration which expanded to neighboring counties.  Rutherford County has high flood risk and is home of the US manufacturing facility for Nissan Leaf, which was 2016’s most productive automotive manufacturing facility.

Heat Stress 

Heat stress is also a significant threat to manufacturing. It can cause electricity shortages or outages due to increased use of air conditioning, which is already happening more frequently as heat waves increase in duration and severity. Increasing temperatures also present a public health hazard that increases the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory illness and lowers worker productivity. Research shows that temperatures above 90F for six or more days reduces weekly production by an average of 8% in US automotive manufacturing plants.

Figure 3. Michigan county-level exposure to heat stress.

Heat stress is less of statewide concern for Michigan, with only 12% of counties exposed (Figure 3), but it is a high risk for Wayne County, where most of the state’s automotive manufacturing is centered.  Ford, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors all reopened their North American manufacturing facilities on May 18th. This means facilities with high exposure to heat stress are coming back online right as summer is picking up, and the season is likely to be warmer than average, especially in southern Michigan.

Figure 4. Tennessee county-level exposure to heat stress.

Over 92% of Tennessee counties are exposed to heat stress (Figure 4), which represents significant risk for the industry and economies it underpins. The key counties housing the state’s automotive manufacturing facilities are all at high risk. New environmental commitments by General Motors signal growth in domestic EV manufacturing, as they plan a multi-billion dollar EV battery plant in Tennessee with LG Electronics. In a state largely exposed to increasing temperatures, planning for increasing energy costs will help increase the viability of these new facilities.

Mitigating Climate Risk

The revitalization of the US automotive manufacturing industry provides an opportunity for key regions to benefit from population growth, a growing tax base and increased economic activity. However, the success of these developments will rely on business resilience to increasing climate extremes. There are opportunities for municipalities to invest in climate resilience measures both to reduce risk to existing businesses and to attract more business. For example, New York City’s  report outlining ways in which industry can take innovative and cost effective approaches to implementing flood preparedness measures also highlights opportunities for the public sector to support these efforts, including through flexible zoning.

Companies would benefit from exploring a region’s climate risk carefully before developing new facilities and from pricing effective risk mitigations into plant development. For example, for heat stress, at the site level, companies can anticipate higher energy costs, improve insulation, build generators, leverage renewable energy and invest in monitoring and predictive systems to understand facility-level energy use. Nissan installed sub-metering in its Tennessee facilities to monitor energy use, identify unnecessary energy draws, and reschedule certain fabrication to when more energy is available.

Likewise, due to the automobile industry’s reliance on both reliable energy and onsite employees, there are opportunities for businesses to engage with the municipalities to help maintain the resilience of key regional infrastructure to relevant hazards like floods and heat waves. For example, companies can partner with the public sector on initiatives like investing in parks and other green infrastructure which can both help reduce the health impacts of heat waves and can also contribute to flood reduction. Companies such as General MotorsFord, and Nissan invest heavily in education and training for the communities where they are located, and there may be an opportunity to develop trainings around climate risk, which can contribute to increased resilience of the local community, including companies’ employees and customers.

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This post was updated on June 4th to omit data on company facility exposure due to data limitations.