WEIRTON — Ron Greer spent nearly half of his life working at Weirton Steel, once the heart of a regional industrial center. At one point, the city’s steel industry employed more than 13,000 people in the area. Now, it’s less than 1,000.
Leaving the VFW Post on Weirton’s Main Street, Greer said he’s cautiously optimistic the town’s fortunes will change. He’s retired now, but is cheered by the news that a new company, Form Energy, has shown interest in establishing an iron-air battery factory on 55 acres of the grounds where Weirton Steel once operated.
“I hope it does come through,” Greer said. “We need more jobs. More people. It’s not like it used to be.”
Form announced it would build its factory in Weirton late last year, estimating the project would bring 750 new jobs to the area, along with a significant investment in infrastructure. Until last week, the only remaining hurdle was the Legislature: lawmakers voted Wednesday to approve $105 million in funding for the deal over staunch opposition from a large number of Republicans — 25 in the House of Delegates and 13 in the Senate.
While many West Virginia lawmakers have publicly supported proposals to bring any jobs to their constituents, a growing number of legislators are fighting the use of state funds to aid companies they see in opposition to the coal industry — even as their own constituents are hungry for any good-paying job they can get.
In the House, the opposition to funding Form Energy was led by Del. Patrick McGeehan, R-Hancock, whose district includes part of Weirton and whose constituents live a short drive from the proposed battery plant site.
“This Form Energy, this new startup, has openly declared its hostile opposition to what makes us who we are in West Virginia,” McGeehan said.
The company chose the area in part because of negotiations with Secretary of Economic Development Mitch Carmichael, who promised them roughly $300 million of state funding over time, as long as Form meets benchmarks for local investments and job creation.
Much of the opposition came down to distrust of Form Energy’s CEO, Mateo Jaramillo, and a dislike of the renewable energy market more broadly. Form Energy hopes their batteries will be used to store energy produced by wind, solar and hydro-plants, to keep grids running on days when less energy is produced. In early interviews, Jaramillo said that he wants to see a total transition away from fossil fuels, which some lawmakers took as antithetical to West Virginia’s values and the state itself.
As Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, put it when the measure was up for a vote on the Senate floor: “This is coal money that we’re giving to a woke company.”
Though at the end of the day, a sizable majority of lawmakers supported the deal.
“I don’t give a technicolored damn what that man’s politics are if he is putting a paycheck in the pocket of West Virginians,” said Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh.
Weirton’s other delegate, Mark Zatezalo, was one of the bill’s most enthusiastic supporters.
“It’s something that’s been dreamed about and looked forward to for decades now,” Zatezalo said. “The start of the redevelopment of industrial Weirton.”
He says he respects McGeehan’s position, and his acumen as a lawmaker, but believes his criticisms of Form Energy are misinformed. Moreover, Zatezalo doesn’t see renewable energy as a threat.
“There is no way that renewables are going to replace fossil fuels any time soon,” he said. “One of the reasons is they need these batteries to store energy when none is being produced. That tells you all you need to know.”
But McGeehan’s opposition is more about the who than the what of the company. In an interview, he said he doesn’t oppose companies in the renewable space generally, but opposes state money going to Form Energy specifically.
“Once you learn who these folks are — who their investors are — it becomes immediately clear that they are hostile to our values,” McGeehan said.
McGeehan was talking not just about the company’s most notable investors, tech billionaires Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, but a company run by what he described as “globalists,” with ties to Saudi Arabia and China. Form Energy has explicitly denied those allegations. McGeehan struggled to define exactly what “globalist” meant, except that it is the opposite of “localism.”
“There’s all sorts of ways we can use this money to strengthen existing businesses, and strengthen our culture and our communities,” McGeehan said. “When you introduce a foreign force that is antithetical to your values, something that’s external to the community, that can produce a lot of negative effects.”
Weirton residents like Greer interviewed by Mountain State Spotlight similarly support the state’s coal industry, and share some of McGeehan’s concerns that Form Energy, particularly, may not live up to its promises of jobs and investments. But ultimately their concerns are outweighed by their need for jobs.
Josh Smith has a degree in physics, but no steady job. Instead, he picks up shifts at a gift shop on Weirton’s main street, run by a friend. Smith says he’s seen job listings requiring higher education that pay as low as $32,000 a year. Meanwhile, he says, the local Sheetz will pay $17 an hour.
Smith says he’s slightly worried a company new to the area like Form won’t be invested in Weirton in the long haul, but says the opportunity to provide jobs is too good to pass up.
“I mean, we need it,” Smith said. “But it’s just one of those things. Is it something that’s going to stay? Or is it something that’s going to be here 10 years and then close down?”
Over at the United Steelworkers union hall, local chapter president Mark Glyptis also supports the Form Energy deal. Behind Glyptis’ desk is an old campaign picture of McGeehan. A third-generation steelworker, Glyptis said that he’s spoken with McGeehan, and believes that McGeehan was right to scrutinize the company, but ultimately believes that the investment in Form is a good one for Weirton.
“That’s what’s the most important thing to me,” Glyptis said. “That the company is a thriving, prosperous company that is able to result in the promises that it’s advertising.”
Now, the bill providing the Department of Economic Development funding for the deal will be sent to Gov. Jim Justice to sign into law.