Nestled within the picturesque landscape of West Virginia’s Ohio River valley, a phoenix is rising from the ashes of a once-thriving steel industry. The groundbreaking initiative spearheaded by Form Energy, a cutting-edge energy storage company, is shaping a new narrative for the community of Weirton. This transformative $760 million project, made possible through the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), not only promises a sustainable energy future but also endeavors to breathe life back into deindustrialized communities. In this extended exploration, we will delve into the historical significance of the Weirton steel mill, the challenges faced by the region, and the potential ramifications of this ambitious venture on Appalachia’s economic landscape.

The Steel Mill’s Legacy and Decline

To understand the magnitude of the Form Energy project, we must first trace the contours of the Weirton steel mill’s legacy. Once the economic heartbeat of West Virginia, the mill reached its zenith in the 1940s. At that time, it was the state’s largest employer and contributed significantly to its tax base. However, the winds of change began to blow in the 1970s. The mill faced stiff competition from cheaper foreign steel, coupled with a lax enforcement of regulations on the material. This perfect storm led to the mill’s decline, ultimately filing for bankruptcy protection in 2003.

The fallout was profound, leaving the once-prosperous community grappling with economic hardships. Mark Glyptis, president of the United Steelworkers Local 2911 and a third-generation steelworker from Weirton, reflects on the heartbreak the community endured. The mill, which employed thousands and paid a decent wage in the 1970s, became a relic of the past. Weirton’s economic landscape shifted, transitioning from a production-based to a service-based economy, dealing a severe blow to residents’ economic well-being.

The Promise of Green Jobs

Enter Form Energy, a Massachusetts-based company led by a former Tesla vice-president, with an ambitious plan to build an iron-air battery manufacturing plant on the grounds of the old Weirton steel mill. The $760 million project, initiated in May, is set to produce batteries capable of storing electricity for an impressive 100 hours. What sets these batteries apart is their composition, running on iron, water, and air, as opposed to the more commonly used but less abundant lithium.

The project, hailed as a beacon of hope for deindustrialized communities, is not just about harnessing cutting-edge energy storage technology. It represents a commitment to green jobs and a sustainable future. Form Energy’s venture aligns seamlessly with the IRA’s carbon-cutting incentives, which aim to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by 40 percent from 2003 levels. The ripple effect of this landmark policy has seen 83 new or expanded major clean energy manufacturing facilities announced, including 14 battery manufacturing plants, according to the American Clean Power Association.

Navigating Labor Challenges

While the promise of green jobs and a revitalized economy is compelling, navigating the complex terrain of labor remains a challenge. The IRA incentivizes companies like Form Energy to provide decent wages and working conditions, ensuring a 30 percent tax credit on qualifying projects. However, the act falls short of mandating unionized labor, a crucial aspect in ensuring workers’ ability to protect their working conditions and advocate for better benefits and wages.

At the battery plant’s groundbreaking ceremony in May, Form Energy committed to employing at least some unionized workers, offering a glimmer of hope for labor advocates like Glyptis. However, the absence of a direct requirement for companies to employ unionized labor leaves a void. On the campaign trail, President Biden indicated support for making union neutrality a necessary condition for obtaining federal funding, but this requirement is not embedded in the IRA.

A Catalyst for Change

While the Form Energy battery manufacturing plant alone may not singlehandedly revive the Ohio River valley’s economy, it serves as a catalyst for change. Patrick Ford, a director at the Frontier Group, the firm responsible for remediating the former Weirton steel mill site, views the project as a pioneering effort. The remediation, coupled with additional incentives from the IRA, creates an environment conducive to further investment.

The symbolism of seeing a developer break ground on a formerly contaminated site is powerful. Ford believes it will encourage other developers to consider the region for future projects. He points out that there are still over 2,000 acres of the old Weirton steel plant’s footprint available for new businesses, estimating the potential to support thousands of additional jobs and attract billions of dollars in further investment.

Future Prospects and Challenges

The Form Energy battery plant holds the potential to lead to the creation of a cluster of battery plants in the Ohio River valley. However, challenges loom on the horizon. The absence of mandates from the Biden administration for power grids to use batteries raises questions about the market’s competitiveness. Boettner emphasizes that the state must tax new developments to pay for public services if it aims to fully reap the benefits. Historically, West Virginia has under-taxed fossil fuel producers for extraction, a pattern that Boettner fears may repeat with green initiatives.

A Community’s Rebirth

As we navigate the complexities of Weirton’s journey, one thing becomes clear the Form Energy battery manufacturing plant represents more than just a technological advancement. It symbolizes resilience, transformation, and the potential for rebirth. Weirton, with its storied past and uncertain present, stands at the forefront of a green revolution that could redefine the economic landscape of Appalachia.