DALTON, Ga. — President Joe Biden and Marjorie Taylor Greene have at least one thing in common: They’re both big fans of a solar factory in this corner of northwest Georgia.
This sleepy corner of the state, carved out of the Appalachian hills and long known for its carpet industry, is decidedly not Biden country. Former President Donald Trump won nearly 70 percent of the votes here in Whitfield County in 2020, the same year the district first sent the flamethrowing Republican Greene to Congress.
One morning in June, a white pickup truck displaying an “Impeach Biden” bumper sticker drove past a Dalton Waffle House. At a nearby Walmart, Dalton residents described their support for their congresswoman. “She’s got balls,” said one local retiree who declined to give his name. “She seems to stand up for us,” said an 84-year-old Greene supporter who thinks 80-year-old Biden isn’t “cognitive enough” to be president.
So the heart of Greene’s district might seem an odd place for a solar plant that’s become a poster child for the Biden administration’s climate policy agenda.
But that’s the story behind Hanwha Qcells, a South Korea-owned company that built the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere in an industrial area south of Dalton’s downtown. It started churning out solar panels in 2019, but it’s expanding dramatically and hiring, thanks to the major climate law enacted by Biden and uniformly opposed by Greene and her GOP colleagues.
Dalton — and areas like it around the country — could be the climate law’s political insurance.
Biden touts clean energy project in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district
That law is driving big renewable energy investments in deep-red districts like Greene’s all over the country. And the Biden administration is betting that local support for those jobs will safeguard both the climate law and the emissions cuts it promises.
Even Greene, who has bashed Biden’s climate law and introduced articles to impeach him, loves the solar plant.
“I think they’re fantastic,” she told E&E News earlier this year. “I support all kinds of energy.”
Biden pointed to Dalton — and Greene — last week in a speech where he accused Republicans of hypocrisy for “bragging” about the investments from the climate law they voted against.
Referring to the Qcells solar plant, Biden said, “You may find it hard to believe, but that’s Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district.” He added, “I’ll be there for the groundbreaking.”
The carpet capital
Carpet and flooring remain the dominant industries in Dalton. | Robin Bravender/POLITICO’s E&E News
Solar manufacturing is a new phenomenon in Dalton, which has long drawn its pride and its riches from carpet manufacturing.
Dalton traces its history as an industrial powerhouse back to the early 1900s, when local legend Catherine Evans Whitener launched the local tufted bedspread industry. Dalton became famous for the extravagant bedspreads hung up for sale on clotheslines along a highway dubbed Peacock Alley.
That handicraft — and a federal minimum wage law — ultimately spawned the local carpet industry that put Dalton on the map as the “Carpet Capital of the World.”
The New Deal-era passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 helped kick-start the carpet industry, said Adam Ware, director of the Bandy Heritage Center at Dalton State College.
“The passage of the minimum wage law led directly to the manufacturing of carpet, because when you can’t have women hand-tufting around the clock, that led to the development of machine tufting because that way you were able to lower your labor hours but keep up your product rates,” Ware said.
Demand for carpet surged, and Dalton’s economy thrived.
Americans shelled out for wall-to-wall shag in their living rooms or practical low-pile in their basements. The “Carpet Capital of the World” was flush with jobs and cash. Millionaires cruised around in luxury cars. Kids played little league with carpet companies’ names emblazoned on their jerseys.
Job seekers, investors and even Trump — who was dating area native Marla Maples — showed up in Dalton.
The industry also drew in immigrants who headed to Dalton to find work in the carpet mills. “It was by and large a Mexican American population first, but it has diversified substantially since then,” Ware said.
Dalton’s Hispanic population grew significantly as the economy boomed, growing from about 6.5 percent in 1990 to about 40 percent by 2000, according to census data. By 2022, Dalton’s population of about 34,000 people was 53 percent Hispanic or Latino.
By 1990, Dalton was “way up there in millionaires per capita,” The Washington Post reported, with “shiny red Ferraris in high school parking lots.” And Daltonians embraced their home-grown cash cow.
Little league teams were named after carpet companies. The basketball court in at least one local elementary school was carpeted, said Ware, 41, who graduated from Dalton High School in 2000.
Shaw Industries is a major flooring company headquartered in Dalton. | Robin Bravender/POLITICO’s E&E News
It was a small city with big money.
“When I was a kid, a traffic jam in Dalton meant four cars at the same stop light, but they were all Mercedes S-Classes,” Ware said.
Then came the crash.
The 2008 housing bust devastated Dalton’s carpet industry, prompting plant closures and layoffs. By 2012, Dalton had the unfortunate ranking of No. 1 for job losses in the country.
“By population, in fact, at that time, Dalton lost more jobs than any other American city,” Vice President Kamala Harris said during a visit to the area earlier this year.
“Now, I know this is a story that many of you remember because you lived it. But I tell the story because I believe more Americans should know about what has happened here in Dalton since,” she said.
A solar boom
The Hanwha Qcells plant in Dalton is the largest solar panel manufacturing facility in the Western Hemisphere. | Robin Bravender/POLITICO’s E&E News
Harris was in town to brag about Dalton’s solar boom — and about the Biden administration’s role in spurring those investments.
Qcells opened its Dalton factory in 2019 at an event attended by a top Trump administration Commerce Department official. The factory hired 650 people and churned out 12,000 solar modules per day.
The solar company didn’t land in Georgia because of the Biden administration’s policies, but it says it’s growing because of incentives from Biden’s climate law.
After Democrats’ climate law was enacted in the summer of 2022, Qcells announced a huge expansion.
In January, the company announced a $2.5 billion investment to expand the Dalton facility and build a new plant outside of Atlanta.
In March, the solar company hired former top Biden staffer Danny O’Brien as its top lobbyist.
Harris announced during her April visit that Summit Ridge Energy, the country’s biggest developer of community solar, had pledged to buy enough panels from the Dalton plant to power 1.2 gigawatts of community solar, which could amount to 2.5 million panels.
Qcells now employs 1,285 people at its Dalton plant, with plans to hire 510 more when it expands that facility. The company also plans to hire 2,000 people in a new facility in Cartersville, about 45 miles outside Atlanta.
“These are investments that are made as a result of the [Inflation Reduction Act],” said Lindsay Cherry, a Qcells spokesperson. “We just wouldn’t see those investments without this policy.”
Georgia Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock pushed for solar tax incentives that were ultimately included in the climate law.
Some Daltonians weren’t thrilled about the vice president’s visit.
Greene tweeted a photo of five protesters the day of Harris’ visit. One held a megaphone and wore an anti-Biden “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirt. Another wore a shirt depicting Trump’s face that said, “Miss Me Yet?” and held a sign reading “Bless Your Heart.”
“This is what protesters in my district in Northwest Georgia look like when they are protesting Kamala Harris coming to town, trying to take credit for jobs that President Trump and Governor Kemp created in Georgia back in 2019,” Greene wrote on Twitter at the time.
“There were people that were waving signs that were on a different side of the aisle,” said Jason Mock, president and CEO of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce. “You had folks that support the other side, and they showed up a little bit,” Mock said. “But at the end of the day, I think Qcells was very respectful to say, ‘Hey, you know what, we’re proud to have the vice president here.’”
Dalton’s story is a helpful one for the Biden administration, which is marketing its climate law as a boon for once-prosperous manufacturing regions that have seen job losses in recent years.
“Dalton, we see what you have accomplished, and we see the path that you’ve laid,” Harris told workers at the Qcells factory in April. “We see a future with more jobs, more factories and more opportunity. And we are fighting with you to make that vision real,” Harris added.
‘My kids see me as a superhero’
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke in April to an audience during her visit to the Qcells solar plant in Dalton . | Olivia Ross/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP
Kimberly Richardson, a Qcells recycling assistant manager, introduced Harris before her speech in April.
It was “exciting, scary,” Richardson said in a recent interview inside the Qcells plant. “I’ve never met anybody at that magnitude of security, that magnitude of importance.”
Richardson grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., a 40-minute drive from Dalton, and landed the job at Qcells in 2018. When she started, Richardson said, “I didn’t know anything about solar manufacturing at all.”
She likes the flexibility the job offers, like being able to take her mother to appointments. “They were very understanding when it came to that.”
Some of Richardson’s colleagues moved to Qcells from the carpet industry.
Growing up nearby, Robert Lee Howey’s parents told him, “If we didn’t go to school … we’re gonna be stuck in the carpet mills,” he said. He wound up working in the carpet industry after serving in the military. He was making $8.50 per hour, and the work was hot in the summer.
In 2018, a co-worker told him, “‘Hey, there’s this high-tech facility opening up down the road.’ And they’re like, ‘We’re gonna go to this temp agency and fill out an application during lunch.’”
Howey thought, “Man, that’s disrespectful to this employer,” he said. “But I did it anyway, because I knew that was a job. I was looking for my career.”
He’s now a master training coordinator at Qcells.
Inside the factory, workers wear hats and safety goggles as machines churn out solar panels and workers test them for defects.
It’s noisy, but it’s climate-controlled and comfortable.
There are “no words” to describe how much better it is than a carpet factory, Howey said. “It allows you to think.”
Another perk of the job, Howey said: His kids — ages 6 and 7— are proud of him. “My kids see me as a superhero. And I don’t mean that to brag, it’s about them saying that I can use the sun’s energy for power.”
Carpet is ‘who we are’
Colt Helton, 36, is the co-owner of Helton Tire Center in Dalton. | Robin Bravender/POLITICO’s E&E News
Solar is gaining ground in Dalton, but carpet is still king.
Massive carpet and flooring plants sprawl along the outskirts of town. Peacock statues and images adorn streets and storefronts in Dalton, a nod to its bedspread-turned-carpet industry. The Shaw carpet company’s name is on the high school football stadium’s sign.
“Carpet is what we do, but it’s also who we are,” Ware said of Dalton.
After some rough years following the housing crash, locals say Dalton has seen a renaissance, luring in new workers while drawing back others who had moved away.
Dalton has become cool again, one bartender at downtown Dalton’s Cherokee Brewing and Pizza said during a recent Monday night trivia contest.
“We came back and we’ve come back roaring, I would say,” said Mock of the Chamber of Commerce. He spoke from his downtown Dalton office, which shares a building with the Carpet and Rug Institute.
Carpet companies have diversified into other types of flooring, including artificial grass, Mock said. The flooring industry had some good years, Mock added, and it’s hiring every day.
About 80 percent of the world’s carpet is still manufactured in north Georgia, according to the Carpet and Rug Institute.
New industries have landed in Dalton, too, including solar.
Qcells ranked No. 6 on the region’s list of top manufacturing employers in 2021, according to data from the Dalton-Whitfield County Joint Development Authority. With 600 employees at that point, the company trailed carpet giants, but its expansions could boost its rankings.
“Once they get fully stocked up, they will be one of the top leaders of our employers in our community,” Mock said.
Colt Helton, 36, the co-owner of Helton Tire Center, grew up in Dalton and returned after spending years away. Helton’s business is covered by a giant yellow banner that reads “DALTON VS. EVERYBODY,” a symbol of his hometown pride.
“The problem is they built these huge, massive, Fortune 500 companies, and they all kind of died off,” Helton said of the carpet industry.
“We’ve lost our way a little bit. I have a feeling that we could easily become Detroit in a hurry if we don’t diversify,” he added.
It’s like “we’re living in a post-carpet capital,” he said. “The cool thing about the South and the cool thing about Dalton and this Appalachia mindset is it’s had a history of always reinventing itself every so often.”
Helton is hopeful about his city’s future. “We’ve got the right amount of people that want to work, and they don’t mind working hard,” he said.