Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld said the pushback by some lawmakers against the Form Energy project was unfair and harmful for recruiting future economic development projects. (Photo Provided)
CHARLESTON — The effort to bring a new battery manufacturer to West Virginia became a lightning rod during the 2023 legislative session, but the region’s senior State Senator said attacks on the state’s investment in the project could doom future economic development.
In an interview Monday from his offices in the State Capitol Building, state Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld said it was important for lawmakers to support the Form Energy project to ensure that other parts of the state see their own economic development projects.
“Eventually, these are going to come to your district or your district or this district or that district,” said Weld, R-Brooke. “I think it’s incumbent upon us as legislators to support each other as we work through these opportunities, because the next district could be yours. I think that is why we all should be here to raise West Virginia up one district, one county, at a time, because eventually it all adds up.”
Weld — the vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, an attorney for Spillman Thomas and Battle, and a former assistant prosecutor in Brooke County – grew up near the former Weirton Steel location. A panoramic photo of Weirton Steel can be seen in his office. The plant was founded in 1909 but saw a steep decline in the mid-2000s. Now the plant is a shadow of its former self.
In December, Form Energy announced it would construct a manufacturing plant for its proprietary iron-air battery technology on 55 acres of the 1,300-acre Weirton Steel property along the Ohio River. The batteries would be used for energy grid storage for solar and wind power. The project represents a $760 million investment in the Weirton area, with the goal of creating as many as 750 jobs in the Ohio Valley.
The project is seen by Weld and others as a way to revitalize Weirton, the Ohio Valley, and the tri-state region shared with Ohio and Pennsylvania. It’s seen as a way to make the Weirton Steel property look more promising to other manufacturers and grow West Virginia’s tax base.
It’s also seen as a way to keep West Virginia in the energy production game by providing yet another resource — grid storage batteries — to states and interests that choose to source their electricity through renewable means, such as wind or solar power.
“At the end of the day, if what is required for them to be able to put power into the grid for their citizens are batteries that are stamped ‘Made in Weirton, West Virginia,’ then I’m all for it,” Weld said. “I’m all for states that have been shortsighted in their policies, whatever they may be, that now need West Virginia for something, whether it be coal or natural gas for their grid or for batteries to back up policies that have not allowed for them to create enough power for their people.”
The state’s involvement with Form Energy sparked multi-hour debates among Republican lawmakers during the 60-day legislative session that ended March 11. Form is putting $350 million up front to get the project started, while West Virginia officials committed $300 million. The state will retain ownership of the land and buildings as a backstop to guarantee its investment while Form Energy meets certain project requirements.
Of that $300 million, the state already provided $75 million in December. House Bill 2882 transfers $105 million for the Economic Development Project Fund towards the Form project. The state will provide another $110 million to Form Energy once the project is complete.
HB 2882 was supported by nearly all Ohio Valley lawmakers, including Weld, state senators Laura Wakim Chapman, R-Ohio; Charles Clements, R-Wetzel; and Michael Maroney, R-Marshall, along with Delegates Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock; Jimmy Willis, R-Brooke; Erikka Storch, R-Ohio; Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio; Charlie Reynolds, R-Marshall; Charles Sheedy, R-Marshall; and David Kelly, R-Tyler. The bill passed both chambers by solid, bipartisan majorities.
The only Northern Panhandle lawmaker to oppose HB 2882 was Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, who has written two letters to Form Energy’s board of directors seeking information about its investors, alleged ties to foreign countries, and asking about any connections to Silicon Valley Bank which was closed by regulators nearly two weeks ago.
While the company boasts celebrity investors, such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, it has denied any ties to Chinese of Saudi Arabia investors. The company said in a statement last week that its investments were diversified and the collapse of SVB had no effect on their operations.
McGeehan and a small but vocal minority of Republican lawmakers – many from coal-mining counties – have criticized the Form Energy project, seeing it as a waste of taxpayer dollars, crony capitalism, and a project that could help clean energy projects at the expense of coal and natural gas-fired power production. Some lawmakers, including Del. Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh – accused fellow Republicans of engaging in Soviet Union-style central planning.
According to sources, the vitriol from some lawmakers has taken Form officials aback, but Weld said that the sentiment in the Weirton area is quite the opposite, with the community welcoming Form with open arms.
“The people of Weirton, the people who are going to benefit from this, they are extremely excited about this prospect, and they are extremely excited for the people of Form to come to town and establish their business there,” Weld said. “That sometimes gets lost in all of this debate that we have in Charleston and that we have on the floor of the House and Senate.”
Weld said he could sympathize to an extent with complaints about how states compete for economic development projects, whereby state commerce officials compete for projects by leveraging tax dollars. Surrounding states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, have been able to outbid West Virginia for major manufacturing projects.
But with West Virginia ending the last two fiscal years with substantial billion-dollar tax revenue surpluses, the state has been able to compete for projects previously out of reach. According to the Department of Economic Development, 29 companies have invested $6.19 billion in West Virginia, including Nucor in Mason County, Berkshire Hathaway in Jackson County, Pure Watercraft in Beech Bottom, GreenPower in South Charleston, and more.
“People have and take issue with the fact that economic development deals are done that are financial incentive packages with companies. I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement. However, that’s how the world operates now,” Weld said. “If we didn’t do it here in West Virginia, then another state absolutely was going to. And we’ve now missed out on that opportunity.”
“We’re talking about an opportunity for our constituents to have a career, to have a job that’s going to allow them to provide for their families,” Weld continued. “That, I think, is the larger picture here.”