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The US Clean Energy Manufacturing Boom Has Begun. Now What?

The US clean energy manufacturing boom has begun. Now what?

The US clean energy manufacturing boom has begun. Now what?

Canary Media kicks off a week of coverage on the country’s bid to ramp up domestic production of clean energy technologies. This story is part of our special series “Made in the USA: Ramping up clean energy manufacturing.” Get caught up here. WEIRTON, West Virginia — On a recent May day, some 235 people gathered from across the country in a vacant lot on the banks of the Ohio River. Behind the tent where they mingled under radiant blue skies, excavators crunched into the earth, gnawing at the remains of a demolished steel plant that had sat quiet since 2005. This was the groundbreaking ceremony for Form Energy , a cleantech startup based in Berkeley, California and Somerville, Massachusetts, whose leaders chose this historic steel town in the far northern panhandle of West Virginia for their first commercial-scale factory. A century ago, townspeople here took iron ore shipped along the Ohio River and threw it in furnaces with West Virginia coal to forge steel. The molten slag made the night sky glow red. Now Form Energy is building an 800,000-square-foot factory to manufacture iron-air batteries that can store energy for days on end, turning wind and solar power into reliable baseload energy sources, a potential breakthrough in the quest for a carbon-free grid. “If you’d have come here 30, 40 years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a vacant lot — everything was filled with manufacturing of some sort,” said Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, in a speech to the crowd. ​“Steel was being made at the rate nothing has ever seen.” West Virginia mined the coal that made the steel that built the guns and ships for the American war effort in World War II, Manchin told the audience. But that legacy couldn’t preserve the steel mill — once the state’s largest employer and taxpayer — when deindustrialization kicked in and America shipped its manufacturing jobs overseas. In a lot adjacent to the field where the ceremony was held, train flatcars still carry shiny spools of steel made elsewhere; Weirton’s remaining steel operation just puts the finishing touches on those products. “We did everything the country asked us to do,” Manchin said. ​“And I guarantee it: We felt like we were left behind.” The remnants of the Weirton Steel facility put the finishing touches on steel now made elsewhere. (Julian Spector/Canary Media) But now that great ebbing of American manufacturing is reversing, and new factories are springing up in Weirton and communities like it across the country, many of them building clean energy products that have never been made in America at this scale. A crisis precipitated this sea change: The Covid pandemic stymied supply chains and issued a stark wake-up call for manufacturers and developers. Then last August, Manchin and his fellow Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act , allocating hundreds of billions of dollars for both manufacturing at home and deploying domestic products. Startups like Form Energy are producing never-before-seen batteries to make renewable power available around the clock. Billion-dollar battery and electric vehicle factories have clustered in the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, down through Kentucky into a new Southeastern Battery Belt spanning Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. Major solar panel factories are popping up in Georgia, Alabama, Texas and, as of a few weeks ago, Oklahoma; companies are taking early steps to build more of the components here, too. A sputtering onshore-wind supply chain is finding a new lease on life, and a brand new offshore-wind manufacturing sector is gearing up. The scale and speed of the shift has been stunning. Clean energy is no niche industry anymore; it’s become a pillar of the national economy. And now that climate-friendly technologies are bringing eye-popping job and investment packages, the states most resistant to climate policy have proven themselves the most enthusiastic adopters of the factories. These political complexities hummed throughout Form’s groundbreaking ceremony, like the drone of the nearby excavators. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm took to the stage to connect Weirton’s changing fortunes to President Biden’s climate and jobs policies: ​“One of the things that we’ve got to be clear about,” she told the crowd, ​“is that the revitalization in communities like Weirton and across the country is happening because of the Inflation Reduction Act.” Senator Manchin emphasized that he supported the law for the sake of energy security after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended global energy markets. He also reminded the crowd that one-third of the law’s total allocation […]

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Daisie Hobson

Daisie Hobson is a Director at the Reshoring Institute and an engineer with many years of experience in manufacturing and project management.

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