Growing numbers of mega-projects being announced across the US are expected to remain constant or increase over the next five years, as companies expand production capacity to meet rising global demand for their products and goals in line with the green transition.
A record 22 mega-projects — investments involving at least $1bn of capital expenditure (capex) — were announced across the US in 2021, higher than any previous year on record, according to fDi Markets, which has tracked greenfield investment since 2003.
A total of $94bn was pledged to these US mega-projects by companies based in either a foreign country or another US state. This is more than double the previous all-time high of $44.1bn, set in 2009.
“The rise of large, very large and mega-projects has been somewhat astonishing,” says Gregg Wassmansdorf, executive board chair at the Site Selectors Guild (SSG), a global association of site selection consultants.
He says that many site selectors, who help companies find suitable locations to invest, have been “busier than they’ve ever been”. This recent boom in mega-projects is expected to continue, with North America seeing the highest growth.
More than half of 50 SSG members surveyed in May 2022 believe that the frequency of global mega foreign direct investment (FDI) projects will increase over the next five years. A further 36% of site selectors expect the number to remain constant, while 10% say they will decrease.
Preliminary 2022 figures indicate that US mega-projects are already on a tear too. fDi Markets tracked 7 mega-projects in the US in the first three months of the year, with a total planned capex of $30.2bn.
Shift away from fossil fuels
Mega-project trends also reflect the switch in global FDI flows in line with the green transition. More than half of the capital pledged to US mega-projects in 2009 went to the fossil fuel industry, according to fDi Markets. By 2021, this share had fallen to 21.5%.
Instead, the semiconductor industry accounted for the largest share (42.6%) of US mega-project investment in 2021, thanks to huge capacity expansions from chipmakers Intel and Samsung. Some 98% of SSG members expect the automotive and electric vehicle (EV) battery industries to be the most likely to see mega-projects in the next few years.
Mr Wassmansdorf notes that the goals set by governments and global automakers to sell millions of EVs by as early as 2030 means there is a massive requirement to invest in major manufacturing projects.
“If automakers want to sell that many EVs, they need to be putting shovels in the ground right now to create that capacity,” he says.
This is already being played out in the data. In 2021, the third-most capital pledged to US mega-projects went to EV assembly plants (11.1%), followed by EV battery facilities (9.9%) and the renewable energy sector (3.3%).
Mega-projects are highly sought after by locations as they typically create hundreds, or even thousands, of jobs. As suppliers usually set up around them, mega-projects can often be transformational for local economies. But large-scale requirements for talent, land and utilities mean that companies can struggle to find suitable locations for their mega-projects.
“For this scale of projects, there is a dearth of good available large sites,” says Mr Wassmansdorf. The two most cited “non-negotiable” location criteria by the surveyed site selection consultants was availability of skilled workforce, followed by sufficient size for the facility.
The largest US mega-project of 2022 so far is a case in point. California-based Intel approached many states, including Ohio, while it was seeking a site for a new semiconductor manufacturing complex. It eventually announced at least $20bn of investment in the state in January 2022.
“[Intel] had really difficult specifications for a site because it needed a large amount of land, near a workforce, with a lot of specifics that were important to the site,” Ohio’s lieutenant governor John Husted told fDi. He said that Ohio had just one suitable site, located to the east of the capital, Columbus, that the state could prepare quickly enough for Intel’s plans.
Preparing a suitable site for a mega-project usually takes local authorities years of planning and investment in preparing land. In North Carolina, where Japanese carmaker Toyota decided to invest $1.29bn in December 2021, Kevin Franklin, the president of Randolph County Economic Development Corporation, told fDi that without collaboration between different county authorities to develop a megasite, it would not have been possible to secure the project.
Mr Wassmansdorf, who has worked on several mega-projects as a senior managing director at real estate advisory firm Newmark, echoes this sentiment. He notes that economic development organisations have to do their due diligence, work on assembling land and ensure megasites have good access to utilities and power to be able to secure energy intensive, EV manufacturing projects. The SSG research bears this out too.
“Mega-projects are not just an overnight success,” says Mr Wassmansdorf. “You have to do the advanced work if you’re going to be successful in landing these projects.”