Gov. Jim Justice traveled to a historic industrial property in Weirton on Friday to sign a bill designating millions of dollars in state support for the site preparation of a cutting-edge battery factory.
The chief executive said this kicks off commitment and progress.
“We were waiting for the bill to move as quickly as we would like,” Form Energy Founder and Chief Executive Mateo Jaramillo said Friday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
“Frankly, we would like to move even faster. So, this bill’s passage allows us to pin our ears back and go as quickly as possible.”
The $760 million initial phase on the site of the old Weirton steel mill in Hancock County is meant to produce 750 well-paying jobs. The iron-air battery manufacturing plant is financed by millions of dollars of private investments, but there are also millions of public dollars going toward the project.
“We are marking a new day where this community will thrive beyond belief,” Justice said at the bill-signing.
The West Virginia Economic Development Authority in December voted to allocate $75 million toward the purchase of land and the construction of buildings in Weirton.
Additional state dollars are coming in the form of a $105 million supplemental budget measure signed by the governor on Friday. There’s also a budget surplus item of $110 million next year. Budget surplus allocations may go into effect when the state’s general fund ends the fiscal year with revenue beyond what had been estimated.
The deal means West Virginia will own the building and land, and Form Energy will lease it back. The site, with its deep history, needs significant remediation. Much of the public money goes toward that infrastructure preparation. Form is responsible for the equipment and material inside the building.
“It means we can go very quickly, and it means we can make the full commitment to the site,” Jaramillo said. “As I think everybody in West Virginia knows, that site requires a lot of work to bring it back to the level it needs to be to shine again. It’s a phenomenal piece of infrastructure. It just needs some work and investment.”
The property would transfer to Form no sooner than five years and only if the company employs 750 workers. The deal calls for workers making at least $63,000 a year in average salary.
Form Energy expects to start construction of its Weirton factory this year and begin manufacturing iron-air battery systems in 2024 for broad commercialization.
The company started its site selection process a year ago and looked at dozens of states and hundreds of sites. Over the first six months, Form narrowed the possibilities to the top three sites.
The company says that it is “developing, manufacturing, and commercializing a new class of cost-effective, multi-day energy storage systems that will enable a reliable and fully renewable electric grid year-round.”
Among Form Energy’s financial backers is Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which includes billionaire investors like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Gates has touted the company’s work “creating a new class of batteries that would provide long-duration storage at a lower cost than lithium ion batteries.”
The company’s battery technology operates through a “reversible rusting” process. The battery breathes in oxygen from the air and converts iron metal to rust. When the battery charges, the reverse happens. An electrical current converts the rust back to iron, and the battery breathes out oxygen.
“We have the right technology; we have customers signed up, asking us to go even faster,” Jaramillo said. “It’s why we’re scaling up the way we are. It’s why we’re pushing to go as quickly as we are — it’s because we have those customers, those utility customers saying ‘deliver us this battery.’”