Anyone who has been to Weirton in the last decade has seen the shuttered steel plant, with its miles of pipelines, squarely in the middle of town. Now there is new life and hope in Weirton thanks to Form Energy’s long-duration battery facility under construction at the steel plant site. Form Energy represents the new energy economy and what is possible for West Virginia.
Form Energy’s batteries harvest and store the electricity created when iron rusts. The long-duration storage batteries can discharge power for about 100 hours, providing needed electric grid stability. The Weirton plant will employ 750 workers in jobs integrated with the energy economy of the future, not in declining fossil fuel industries so typical in West Virginia.
This was a no-brainer for West Virginia, right? Well, no. Politics and downright ignorance conspired to jeopardize the whole deal. The Form Energy story highlights the need for West Virginia voters to elect candidates for office who are sensitive to climate-related issues and who welcome the economic opportunities that are available in the new energy economy.
West Virginia development authorities salivate over practically any potential industrial development. State and local tax credits are liberally used as inducements. The Rockwool plant in Jefferson County is an example. Rockwool’s sweet tax deal breezed through the state’s legislative and regulatory authorities.
Rockwool’s insulation may reduce energy costs, but Rockwool’s operations aren’t a part of the new energy economy. Rockwool uses use natural gas, which isn’t a “clean” fuel no matter what anyone says. Burning natural gas produces 117 pounds of CO₂ per million BTUs (compared with 200 for coal) and is responsible for much of the country’s methane pollution through leaks and accidents.
Yet the Form Energy deal was not as easily accomplished as the one for Rockwool. It required a legislative act to create a supplemental appropriation of $105 million to the state Economic Development Authority. No new taxes were necessary because of available surplus tax revenues from the previous year. Still it was opposed by some legislators.
HB 2882 was introduced in the West Virginia House of Delegates to authorize the supplemental appropriation. This bill passed the House by a vote of 69-25. Del. Bill Ridenour (Jefferson) frustrated climate activists and most of his Republican colleagues by voting No.
In the Senate critics questioned the use of taxpayer funds to support a “green energy” company. Sen. Rupie Phillips (Logan) called the deal a “pig with lipstick.” He argued that coal severance taxes supported the state’s finances and said, “This is coal money we’re giving to a woke company.” His attitude could be the poster child for self-defeating, extreme ideology.
Some Senators who should know better, such as Patricia Rucker (Jefferson), voted No. Other Senators, such as Mike Azinger (Wood) and Robert Karnes (Upshur), always vote against anything progressive. Nevertheless, HB 2882 passed the Senate 21-13 and was signed by Governor Justice.
In late 2022, Berkshire Hathaway Corporation announced a solar-powered micro-grid facility in Jackson County that will use renewable energy to run an aerospace industry manufacturing plant. This plant will be located in the long-shuttered Ravenswood aluminum plant.
Other manufacturing plants attracted to the site by the clean power available through the micro-grid are expected. A drive past the Berkshire Hathaway Ohio River site, now under construction, reveals a jaw-dropping scope. A similar sense is created by seeing the size of the Black Rock wind power project in Grant and Mineral counties.
Young West Virginians searching for a reason to stay in the state need look no further than career opportunities in the new energy economy. There is a bright future for our state if it embraces clean-energy technologies during the painful winding down of our coal and gas economy. This can only be done if policymakers in the Legislature and the State House get on board. It is our job as voters to ensure they do.