A wind farm in Pierce, West Virginia.
Under the guise of protecting state pension funds from something called “woke capitalism,” a number of states have recently imposed sanctions on financial institutions that invest in clean energy. However, their actions already appear to be ineffectual. West Virginia is a case in point. If all goes according to plan, the state’s new venture with the iron-air battery startup Form Energy will help accelerate the pace of clean energy investment across the U.S., woke or no woke.
West Virginia vs. woke capitalism
The “anti-woke” argument has slipped into the national conversation with the help of high-profile governors like Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, who seek to disparage renewable energy as part of their crusade against ESG (environment, social, governance) investing.
West Virginia has cut a lower profile on the national scene, but it’s not for lack of trying. West Virginia State Treasurer Riley Moore made sure that his home state was in the mix when financial officials in 16 states released an open letter in 2021, warning banks against boycotting fossil energy industries.
The goal of the 16-state coalition, as described by Moore, is to “protect our states’ economies, jobs, and energy independence from these unwarranted attacks on our critical industries.”
West Virginia didn't get its own memo
Despite the forcefulness of the letter, Moore apparently forgot to include Gov. Jim Justice and the West Virginia Development Authority in the plan to thwart renewable energy investment.
In December, Gov. Justice announced that the West Virginia Economic Development Authority has invested $75 million to acquire 55 acres of property in the industrial city of Weirton, under a partnership with Form Energy.
Form was attracted in part by the opportunity to set up shop along the Ohio River. Another attraction was the financial package offered by West Virginia.
“We structured a unique financial incentive package worth up to $290 million in asset-based, performance financing to support their decision to locate in Weirton,” Justice said. The governor also cited at least 750 new jobs and a total investment of up to $760 million in the state’s economy.
“The funds put toward this project are guaranteed, secured, and collateralized through ownership of all land and buildings by the state,” Justice emphasized, adding that his office plans to work with state and federal agencies to nail down the other $215 million in assistance needed to complete the package.
In addition to the Economic Development Authority, other backers of the plan cited by Form Energy are West Virginia Secretary Mitch Carmichael, Speaker of the House of Delegates Roger Hanshaw, Senate President Craig Blair and officials in Weirton’s home county of Hancock.
U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito also put their seals of approval on the venture.
The significance of long-duration energy storage
Form has focused its new iron-air battery on long-duration energy storage capability. The company says its technology can store electricity for 100 hours.
That is a significant break with conventional lithium-ion batteries. Though lithium-ion battery systems are commonly used for storing excess wind and solar energy, they only last for a few hours.
Overcoming the long-duration barrier means that energy storage facilities can provide electricity to the grid for days on end, just like a conventional fossil energy power plant. Long-duration energy storage is the key that will ramp up the pace and reach of wind and solar development, squeezing fossil energy out of the power generation sector.
At the present time, hydropower is practically the only form of long-duration energy storage available on a large scale in the U.S. The introduction of new technologies will enable long-duration storage to expand into new territory, independent of hydrological and geological features that are needed for hydropower.
West Virginia to lead the long-duration energy storage revolution with iron-air battery
Form Energy plans to begin construction on its new iron-air battery factory in Weirton this year, with product delivery expected in 2024. The short timeline is made possible in part by supply chain efficiencies that derive from the iron-air platform.
“The active components of our iron-air battery system are some of the safest, cheapest, and most abundant materials on the planet — low-cost iron, water and air,” Form explains.
“Iron-air batteries are the best solution to balance the multi-day variability of renewable energy due to their extremely low cost, safety, durability and global scalability,” they add.
Form also emphasizes that costs for its 100-hour iron-air battery system are competitive with legacy power plants.
As described by Form, the first iron-air batteries to roll off the Weirton assembly line will be followed by other iterations.
“This product is our first step to tackling the biggest barrier to deep decarbonization: making renewable energy available when and where it’s needed, even during multiple days of extreme weather, grid outages or periods of low renewable generation,” the company said.
That certainly sounds like West Virginia will soon export fossil energy-killing technology all around the country, regardless of Moore and the anti-ESG movement.
As for Moore, in December he criticized a new Joe Biden administration rule that widens the discretion of pension managers to consider ESG principles, in addition to speculation that he is preparing to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.