Solar + Storage Transforming Former West Virginia Industrial Site

March 24, 2023 by Dan McCue
Solar + Storage Transforming Former West Virginia Industrial Site
Mujeeb Ijaz, founder and chief executive officer, ONE; Alicia R. Knapp, president and chief executive officer, BHE Renewables; and Kathi Vidal, under secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. (Photo by Dan McCue)

RAVENSWOOD, W. Va. — Like a lot of communities in America’s heartland, Jackson County, West Virginia, was built on natural resources.

Timber and energy wrought from the ground helped sustain and grow its population, and the arrival of manufacturing in the mid-1950s — in the guise of a large aluminum plant — brought with it a new generation of decent-paying jobs and renewed hope for the future.

But then the plant, initially called Kaiser Aluminum, began to change hands in the late 1980s, and after several changes in ownership, it ultimately closed in 2015.

At that point, Jackson County could have become just another coal country community in distress. 

However, visionaries at Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables, based in Des Moines, Iowa, didn’t see it that way.

Better known as BHE Renewables, owner of an array of solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric projects, the company knew there was a way to bring the old Kaiser Aluminum site back to life, creating good-paying and long-lasting 21st century jobs in the process.

“In Jackson County, we’re really demonstrating what’s possible [in economic development] when you lead with clean energy,” Alicia Knapp, president and CEO of BHE Renewables, said on Thursday. 

She was speaking at the three-day ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland.

Joining her on the stage for a panel moderated by Kathi Vidal, an under secretary for commerce at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, was Mujeeb Ijaz, founder and CEO of Our Next Energy.

As part of a collaborative redevelopment plan, BHE Renewables is acquiring the 2,000 acre Kaiser Aluminum site — rebranding it as the BHE Renewables’ microgrid business site — and Our Next Energy, a Michigan-based energy storage technology company, will use a 40,0000 square foot industrial building already in place there to assemble the Aries Grid, a lithium iron phosphate utility-scale battery system that can serve as a long-duration energy storage site.

“When the aluminum plant closed, it took a little over 3,000 jobs with it, and that really changed the entire community,” Knapp said. 

“What we’re doing is bringing a renewable energy solution to bear to attract new manufacturing to the area,” she said.

“When this project is done, it will be the largest solar and storage microgrid in the world,” Knapp said. “What’s more, the solar farm component of this project will quadruple the number of solar panels in the state.”

The first new manufacturing company taking advantage of the renewables-based energy plus storage will be Precision Castparts, a maker of titanium-based aircraft parts whose activities, Knapp said, are just the start of a new aerospace manufacturing hub in the area.

“The first thing we’ll see is a new advanced titanium smelting plant on the site, which creates 200 jobs. Our Next Energy will be located on the site, bringing another 105 jobs. Then what we expect to see are a number of Precision Castparts suppliers and customers coming to the area, building that hub.

“It truly is a demonstration of how clean energy can be used to spur economic development,” she said.

Ijaz said one of the things that was attractive about the project is all of the natural resources his company needs to carry out its work are available here in the U.S., meaning his supply chain is short and less subject to possible disruption.

He said something similar about Our Next Energy’s microgrid technology. “In a sense, you can compare it to going from a landline to a cellphone. Landlines, of course, required a tremendous amount of infrastructure, our cellphones not so much

“Similarly, a microgrid is a way to bring about generation storage and the operationalizing of 24/7 facilities without necessarily requiring a massive infrastructure of utility scale nearby,” he said.

Vidal asked both her guests about the importance of new incentives available through the Inflation Reduction Act and how they contributed to the success of the early stage of their joint project.

“One thing it’s done is … it’s really incentivized companies like Berkshire Hathaway Energy to target communities that can really benefit from development, like these areas in West Virginia,” Knapp said.

“So I think it’s been hugely significant in driving investment to where it’s needed, and incentivizes it to be done in the right way,” she said.

Ijaz called the Inflation Reduction Act “brilliant legislation” that has leveled the playing field globally, particularly for early stage companies like Our Next Energy, which was founded in 2020.

“One of the big challenges early stage companies face is that their costs are going to be higher because they haven’t achieved scale yet,” he said. “Now, it’s one thing for a customer like Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables to look at us and say, ‘This company aligns with our goals, they have the right technology, the right team … the right plans and the ability to scale.’

“But importantly, we also have the right cost structure because the Inflation Reduction Act … [gives] us the ability, over the course of a decade, to supply our services at a reduced cost. That’s the kind of timescale that we need to not only create cell factories, but to develop the wider ecosystem we need in terms of supply chain and so on.

“At the same time, it’s enabled us to grow, and grow quickly. Our revenue projects are now three times what they were before the Inflation Reduction Act passed,” he said.

Before leaving the stage, Knapp was asked what lesson other companies can learn from Berkshire Hathaway’s experience in West Virginia.

“I think the biggest thing is to listen,” she said. “We spent a lot of time, the better part of a year, really listening to local stakeholders and understanding what the problems in the community were and how we could help solve them.

“I think when you’re entering a market, it’s really important to find out what the driving forces are behind conditions there and how you’re going to solve those issues — because that’s how we bring other people in,” Knapp continued.

“When you show up with a solution to a problem like the need for economic development in a specific community, a real solution based on the information you’ve gathered, that’s when you’re able to get legislators, regulators and the local community to buy in, and that really helps you move a lot faster.

“If your idea isn’t attached to a problem that you’re solving, then you’re just not going to be able to create that momentum and you’re likely going to be fighting battle after battle. So really listen to find a problem, and then be the solution to that problem,” she said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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