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Rural Blog: How a journalist’s murder by Saudis may have doomed new manufacturing plant in Eastern KY

The Rural Blog

The October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi may have dashed hopes for a high-tech plant in depressed Eastern Kentucky.

Battery manufacturer EnerBlu cited “unexpected geopolitical factors” on Feb. 5 when it suspended plans for a $372 million plant in Pikeville that would have brought as many as 875 jobs to a region that has lost thousands of coal jobs in recent years, Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley Resource. Though the project ran into problems with the land quality on the plant’s site, which was located on a reclaimed surface mine, EnerBlu CEO Daniel Elliott told OVR it would have been able to work through those issues.

Jamal Khashoggi (Photo by April Brady, Project on Middle East Democracy)

The main problem was financial: EnerBlu representatives said the plant was suspended because a primary potential investor had withdrawn. They didn’t identify the investor, but Elliott said it was Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group. SoftBank operates the Vision Fund, an investment fund meant to support renewable energy projects, Boles reports.

“The Vision Fund’s largest investor, contributing a reported $45 billion, was the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, a government-associated entity chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” Boles reports. “The Saudis and SoftBank planned to build in Saudi Arabia the world’s largest solar project, a 200-gigawatt array. The project would require a massive amount of energy storage capacity, Elliott said, storage capacity that EnerBlu would provide.”

EnerBlu accepted a reported $30 million in tax incentives from Kentucky to relocate its headquarters to Lexington in anticipation of opening the Pike County facility, though EnerBlu had not signed a contract with SoftBank to produce batteries for the Saudi project.

After Khashoggi was murdered, U.S. intelligence said it was at the behest of the crown prince, and many in the international community began to reconsider whether to partner with the Saudis.

“Business leaders faced a decision point when the Saudi government hosted a Future Investment Initiative conference in late October. According to Bloomberg, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son skipped the investment summit and the Saudis withdrew their substantial contribution to the bank’s investment fund,” Boles reports. “There would be no massive solar development in Saudi Arabia, and no need for EnerBlu’s batteries to support it.”

The Rural Blog is a service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

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