When Sen. Lindsey Graham decries U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil, it’s easy to imagine the U.S. trade relationship with countries such as Saudi Arabia as a one-way street, with the Saudis doing all the selling and the Americans doing all the buying.
In Greenville, however, the Saudis are buying, too. And buying a lot.
The Saudi Electricity Co., Saudi Arabia’s government-controlled power company, has been one of the best customers of General Electric Co.’s heavy-duty turbine plant in Greenville.
According to GE, the plant on Garlington Road has made more than 270 of the multi-ton, power-producing turbines for Saudi Arabia over the past 15 years. That represents billions of dollars’ worth of business, since each turbine sells for tens of millions of dollars.
The plant’s biggest order to date — a 30-turbine deal announced amid the Great Recession in 2009 — came from Saudi Arabia.
Its latest business from the Desert Kingdom — three turbines for a Saudi Electricity Co. power plant — was announced last month.
GE says it has installed more than 550 of its turbines in Saudi Arabia — though not all of them were made in Greenville — and they generate more than half of the country’s electricity. GE declined to identify the Greenville plant’s best customer.
The turbine orders from Saudi Arabia are just part of the overseas business that has sustained about 3,200 jobs at GE’s manufacturing-and-engineering complex on Garlington Road.
GE, in fact, exports 80 percent of the turbines it makes in Greenville, shipping them to countries such as Japan, Mexico, Algeria and South Korea, according to company spokesman Kevin Norris.
Doug Woodward, a research economist with the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business, said the GE plant is a great example of the role export-oriented manufacturing plays in the modern South Carolina economy, along with the BMW car plant near Greer and the Boeing aircraft plant in North Charleston and other firms.
Countries such as China and Mexico also buy billions of dollars’ worth of South Carolina-made goods, Woodward said.
He said South Carolinians who don’t work at exporting employers such as the GE plant might not realize how much the state benefits from international trade.
Sometimes, they “think about the negative effects of trade,” he said. “They should look at the export side of the ledger.”
Woodward said South Carolina voters might be persuaded when they hear politicians such as Donald Trump, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, campaign on economic nationalism and decry the loss of U.S. jobs to overseas competition.
“In sound bites, it sounds OK to them,” he said. “But when they hear the facts, I think it wakes them up a little bit. This is important for them to hear, what the reality is for international trade in South Carolina.”
The latest Saudi Arabian order for GE’s Greenville plant is part of a $1 billion deal that also involves solar technology and a steam turbine to be made in New York.