House Finance Committee members advanced a $105 million supplemental appropriation to support Form Energy, which has plans to build a cutting-edge battery plant in the northern panhandle.
House Bill 2882, which calls for a directed transfer to the state Economic Development Project Fund, now goes to the full House for consideration.
That’s a key piece of the financial structure for the Form Energy deal announced by Gov. Jim Justice just before Christmas. Form Energy is putting up at least $350 million of private dollars to get the project off the ground at the site of the old Weirton Steel in Hancock County.
The total public support by the State of West Virginia for the project is $290 million, including the piece delegates are advancing. Lawmakers are discussing whether that is a good investment by the state in a project promising at least 750 well-paying jobs with an energy-transition manufacturer.
Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, says the answer is yes. Storch described her mother growing up in Weirton and memories of the enormous steel mill in its manufacturing prime.
“It’s hard for me to picture that community because the Weirton that I’ve seen, in my recent memory, has been one that’s vacant, where people have left the area, where the buildings have been demolished or have been recycled or repurposed.
“So I can’t think of a better opportunity that will be a better for this community to take a chance on a company that’s willing to invest in a community that really could use the jobs and the investment.”
The West Virginia Economic Development Authority voted late last year to allocate $75 million toward the purchase of land and the construction of buildings in Weirton. The $105 million represented by the supplemental appropriation considered by delegates on Monday is the second piece. And a budget surplus item of $110 million next fiscal year is the third piece.
The deal means West Virginia will own the building and land, and Form Energy will lease it back. 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.
“What we have in front of us is a pretty good deal,” said Delegate John Williams, D-Monongalia. “We have the opportunity to have to the state of West Virginia own the facility, own the land, and then it’s on the company to come up with the jobs and in five years to demonstrate that they’ve done a good job.”
Form Energy expects to start construction of its Weirton factory in 2023 and begin manufacturing iron-air battery systems in 2024 for broad commercialization.
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.
The announced plant is an opportunity for West Virginia to add to its recent streak of economic development announcements, said Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell.
He rattled off last year’s announcement of Nucor Steel, which uses recycled materials; Berkshire Hathaway’s announcement of a titanium aerospace plant; GreenPower’s all-electric school buses in Kanawha County; and Pure Watercraft’s battery-powered pontoon boats.
“Now we’re talking about Form Energy, which is brand-new battery technology,” Rohrbach said. “So the things I just named off are 21st Century, new technology companies that are choosing West Virginia to locate.
“I will tell you the theme is businesses, new cutting-edge businesses are noticing what we’re doing, they’re liking what we’re doing, and they are locating with billions of dollars in investments in our state.”
Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, was not convinced. He said he was sorry to be a Debbie Downer.
“I don’t think we have a good deal in front of us,” Gearheart said. “I think we have an extremely risky — and I don’t know that the state of West Virginia wants to be involved in using our capital as risk capital.”
He said, “We’ve got a lot of tax dollars, a lot of tax dollars, that I think we’re putting into a risky venture. And I hope that I’m wrong.”