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Form Energy to begin manufacturing iron air batteries in Weirton to stabilize electrical grid

A metal frame is seen on a large under construction factory building.
Glynis Board
90.5 WESA
The Form Energy battery factory in Weirton, WV. The 2-story, 420,000 square foot facility will begin mass producing long-duration utility-scale batteries this spring.

A company pioneering electrical grid batteries that will provide days of backup power for power plants reliant on renewable energy is building out its manufacturing arm throughout the greater Pittsburgh region.

Form Energy is on track to begin manufacturing the new kind of grid asset this spring, one the company says is sorely needed in a destabilized climate. As bonuses, it’s cheap — made of earth-abundant and predominantly domestically sourced materials — and Form needs a large, maker workforce to pull it off.

This is a welcomed development in the community of Weirton, West Virginia, which has seen population and industry decline steadily since the 1970s. Most recently, Cleveland-Cliffs — a neighbor company in the small town — announced it would idle its tinplate production plant and lay off up to 900 employees.

While the steel industry in the U.S. is a shadow of its former self, Form Energy CEO Mateo Jaramillo said the existing workforce combined with government initiatives are compelling incentives to bring a new generation of manufacturing to the region.

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Baking off energy-storage solutions

“We live in an increasingly volatile weather world,” Jaramillo said.

Jaramillo is one of five co-founders who came together in 2017 to create a company that would tackle energy storage — specifically, low-cost, utility-scale, long-duration batteries. These are energy storage banks designed to back up power plants that are no longer relying on stores of coal or stashed liquid gas during intermittent weather because they’ve switched to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

“Whether it's a polar vortex in the upper Midwest, or it's a rare winter storm in Texas that creates a four-day blackout, or it's a nor'easter or a heat dome in the Pacific Northwest — every region has its signatures that last for multiple days,” Jaramillo said.

There are several grid-stabilizing battery systems developing and coming online to improve consistency and daily reliability for power plants tapping into renewable sources — lithium-ion in Hawaii, earth in Texas, virtual power plants in Puerto Rico, and water in Portugal). But Jaramillo, who also spearheaded Tesla’s stationary energy-storage program, explained that batteries that will keep power on for several days are still a missing piece in the portfolio of grid assets.

Form has collected $800 million in venture capital funding to mass produce the solution it researched and developed.

“We started with a couple options on the table, and we essentially baked them off for the first, roughly, year of the company,” Jaramillo said. “And at the end of that process, the bake off, it was iron air that we felt actually quite confident could succeed.”

A crane raises a metal beam into place during construction of a large factory.
Form Energy
The final beam is raised in the first phase of building out Form Energy's factory in February. The factory will begin manufacturing iron air batteries this spring.

Iron air batteries are not something Form Energy invented. The company is actually building off technology developed in Pittsburgh 50 years ago when Westinghouse was researching them for electric vehicles.

Form is the first to commercialize and scale the technology. Before building the massive facility in West Virginia, the company built a smaller manufacturing facility in Washington County, Pennsylvania to iron out the kinks.

“This is really our proving ground, if you will,” Jaramillo said, pointing to a team of people in a room where powdered iron is processed into trays. “We built this facility out. It's about 50,000 square feet in this particular building and then a couple other tens of thousand square feet in a different building.”

The iron air battery technology being manufactured is fairly simple. When iron rusts, it swaps an electron for an oxygen molecule. Form is harnessing that exchange, rusting and un-rusting iron, enabling the storage and release of energy for days. The company’s target was to develop a battery that would last 100 hours and store energy for one tenth the cost of lithium-ion batteries.

That price is possible largely because the batteries mostly require one of the most abundant and mined metals on earth: iron.

“[Components are] all earth-abundant, and not only that, available here in North America. So our supply chain is … absolutely dominated by domestic suppliers,” Jaramillo said.

Lithium-ion batteries, the current market driver, cost $200 to $300 per kilowatt-hour (kilowatt-hour measures a battery’s energy storage capacity). Iron air batteries, in contrast, cost about $20 per kilowatt-hour. Jaramillo explained that the cost of lithium-ion will likely continue to drop, and that Form Energy’s target is to remain one tenth of that cost. And he's is optimistic about expanding into future applications as well.

“We have a lot of use for other applications for energy storage, maybe in some conventional and some unconventional ways that we could bring that to bear to create that better world that we're going for,” Jaramillo said, referring to Form Energy’s motto: energy storage for a better world.

“So certainly, this is not the end,” he said. “It's only just the beginning, frankly, for what we intend to do with batteries or with energy storage, broadly speaking.”

Lifts holding workers sit next to and inside a metal frame for an under construction factory building.
Glynis Board
90.5 WESA
Form Factory 1 is finishing the first phase of construction.

Repurposing Weirton steel

“So it's a little muddy. Has been raining for the past week, and snowing,” said Soufiane Halily, the vice president of Form Factory 1, as he stepped carefully across a water-logged path through plastic curtains onto freshly set concrete. Prior to this project, Halily spent six years building gigafactories for Tesla. Now, he’s building Form Energy’s roughly 1 million-square-foot battery-manufacturing campus in Weirton, West Virginia. He said he was attracted to the project because of its lofty goals to help decarbonize the grid.

“When we started six months ago, this was a remnant of a steel plant with tons of rusted structures that we had to demolish,” he said.

A man wearing a hard had and a hi-vis vest stands in front of an under construction factory.
Glynis Board
90.5 WESA
Soufiane Halily, the vice president of Form Factory 1, stands in front of the building he's overseeing at the former Weirton Steel site in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia.

Halily recalled digging up basements and old tanks, discovering tunnels and even excavating buried train cars. But today, he was excited to point out how the lights are on as he walked through a two-story, 420,000-square-foot facility on the footprint of the old Weirton Steel site.

One Weirton Steel building still lingers, running parallel to the new factory. Halily said he hopes to repurpose and incorporate it as building plans develop because “it’s such a representation of the region” — something he said he is uniquely positioned to do because he is simultaneously designing the factory alongside those who are figuring out how it will function.

“We are designing the product and the manufacturing systems and the factory all at the same time,” Halily said. He explained this sort of lean manufacturing style construction demands high levels of cooperation but allows for unprecedented efficiency and building speed.

And, he said, it’s working. The final steel beams for the first-phase building were just raised, and Form plans to start producing utility-scale, multi-day batteries this spring. By the end of the year, the first array should be online, and as many as a couple hundred more employees will have joined the manufacturing staff.

The first of Form’s long-duration grid battery systems — a 150-megawatt-hour pilot project in Minnesota — is expected to go online later this year. Two larger 1000-megawatt-hour systems are slated for 2025, and a third in New York in 2026.

An old steel factory building that's open to the air.
Glynis Board
90.5 WESA
Remnants of the Weirton Steel factory remain on site. Form Factory 1 VP Soufiane Halily is considering repurposing this old building into their facility.

A ready workforce

Today, Form Energy employs 700 people — some in the Boston-based research and development arm, some in the engineering campus in California, and about 150 in Eighty Four, Pa. The company plans are to hire an additional 750 workers in Weirton by 2028.

“You will not find a workforce that can be as readily trained to make, slit, cut, coat, grind, roll, fabricate, assemble, than the workforce here,” said Pat Ford, director of external affairs and business development for the Frontier Group of Companies. His company owned and remediated the 55-acre site in Weirton that Form Energy acquired for its manufacturing facility.

Ford recalls Form was willing to locate on a former industrial site because of its access to rails, rivers, and roadways, but the region’s workforce was at the top of its list of 150 characteristics Form used to grade potential sites.

“We are a community rich with industrial heritage, but at the same time we're equipped to adapt to change as it relates to manufacturing,” Ford said.

And Jaramillo said the region hasn’t disappointed him. The company is also in the process of hiring a workforce development manager.

Two people in hard hats and hi-vis vests stand inside an under construction factory.
Glynis Board
90.5 WESA
Mateo Jaramillo and Soufiane Halily in front of freshly poured cement at Form Factory 1 in Weirton, WV.

“Our assumption, based on the work that we had done, is that there was a very strong workforce here. And happily, that was confirmed and more, when we had our first sort of meaningful job fair. We had hundreds of applicants show up.”

Additionally, 200 interview slots were filled within 36 hours of posting jobs online, Jaramillo said. It helps that the minimum average salary being offered is $63,000 — which is about $10,000 more than what men in the region make on average and double what women make on average. That salary is what Form Energy has committed to the state of West Virginia in return for a financial incentive package from the state worth approximately $290 million.

Federal politicians and Jaramillo credit the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) as a key reason Form’s manufacturing facility has been located in the region. While the company has not received any direct financial support through the IRA, company representatives say the bill has created a business landscape that’s allowed them to develop their product efficiently to help meet national energy goals: enhancing grid resilience, security and safety, creating good-paying jobs that economically benefit existing energy communities, and incentivizing domestic manufacturing.

Form reports a total direct investment of up to $760 million in the Weirton Form factory site. The factory anticipates producing 500 megawatts of batteries annually when in full operation.

Corrected: February 19, 2024 at 3:34 PM EST
This story was adjusted to correct the spelling of Mateo Jaramillo's name, the price description of Form Energy's iron-air battery energy storage, and the timing of the commencement of production. We regret the mistakes.
Glynis comes from a long line of Pittsburgh editors and has 16 years of experience reporting, producing and editing in the broadcasting industry. She holds a Master's in Education and a Bachelor of Arts from West Virginia University. She also spent a year with West Virginia University as an adjunct journalism professor.