Form Energy to build novel iron batteries in West Virginia steel town

The extremely well-funded long-duration storage startup Form Energy found an eager partner in West Virginia’s state government.

a view of a small community surround by tree-covered hills
An aerial view of Weirton, West Virginia (The Folkway/Marissa Fanary)
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The West Virginia town of Weirton lost its steel industry years ago. But on Thursday, it gained a new kind of iron industry.

Startup Form Energy picked Weirton from among 500 possible locations to manufacture its forthcoming long-duration energy-storage technology. The novel iron-air battery is designed to store clean energy, affordably, for 100 hours, far more than the four or six hours of storage that lithium-ion batteries provide today. 

The factory complex will create 750 jobs and invest $760 million in the community, a figure that includes $290 million of planned incentives from the state of West Virginia. The state Economic Development Authority greenlit $75 million to purchase 55 acres and build the facility; the state will retain ownership of land and buildings as a form of collateral for its other incentive contributions.

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West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (R) announced the deal with a childhood reminiscence about watching his hometown team play Weirton in the state basketball finals in 1962, when Weirton’s steel industry employed thousands and the town thrived. Since then, Weirton has experienced tough, tough times.” The new factory will change that, he said, while continuing West Virginia’s legacy as a crucial energy-producing state.

We want West Virginia to be known forevermore as that energy state that always figured it out,” Justice said.

It’s hard to get more cutting-edge than iron-air batteries, a technology that has not yet been installed in a full-scale power plant. Form co-founder and CEO Mateo Jaramillo left Tesla’s energy-storage business to tackle the problem of long-duration storage: How can we take renewable power, which doesn’t flow around the clock, and turn it into a reliable 24/7 power source?

To reach renewable energy independence, to meet supply-chain challenges, to run the grid reliably and affordably, we need new, domestically manufactured energy-storage technologies capable of cost-effectively storing electricity for multiple days,” Jaramillo explained at the announcement event in West Virginia Thursday.

Form assembled an impressive team of experts, many of them hailing from MIT, and scoured the periodic table for materials that could not just store energy but do it cheaply. They chose iron, which is abundant and low-cost relative to other storage materials. And the company’s prototypes advanced quickly enough that investors poured in increasingly large sums to fund the precommercial development. 

Just in October, Form raised $450 million; Jaramillo told Canary Media at the time that this money would go to doubling headcount, finishing validation and testing for the product, and building the first factory.

It became abundantly clear that Weirton, West Virginia, that historic steel community that sits on a river and has the rich heritage, raw infrastructure and know-how to make great things out of iron, would be the ideal location for our first commercial battery production facility: Form Factory One,” Jaramillo said. 

He also thanked West Virginia’s leadership for cultivating a pro-business landscape” and supporting workforce development. Geographically, Weirton sits in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, nestled amid a historic industrial region. It’s just 36 miles west of Pittsburgh, and across the river from Ohio; Youngstown sits 60 miles to the north.

West Virginia’s pro-business attitudes historically focused on the coal and gas sectors. Coal and gas plants compete with the cheap renewable power that Form promises to store; indeed, unlocking long-duration storage would allow renewables to compete more directly with the gas plants that deliver on-demand power today.

Justice, the governor, resolved that potential tension by embracing Form’s factory as a means to diversify West Virginia’s economy. 

We need to embrace all the renewables, all the alternatives, while never forgetting — never, ever forgetting — our coal miners, our gas workers, and all the goodness that we have with our natural resources,” Justice said. 

Fellow West Virginian Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator, adopted a similar perspective in the climate legislation that he brokered as the Inflation Reduction Act. He stripped language that would have pushed coal and gas plants to close but created a decade of federal tax credits to encourage clean energy deployment. 

The law includes the first stand-alone credit for energy storage installations, such as the ones Form will supply. And there is an added bonus for projects utilizing domestic content, like what Form will manufacture in Weirton.

Form Energy is the latest in a string of companies announcing new domestic factories in response to the supportive policies in that legislation. Justice recalled a not-so-distant time when we were really, really excited when we had an announcement of eight jobs at a water bottling plant.” Now Form is bringing 750 jobs, to start.

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Julian Spector is senior reporter at Canary Media.