Climate Corner: Two new innovative developments for renewable energy and jobs

Aug 19, 2023

Randi Pokladnik

My family has strong ties to the steel industry. My paternal grandmother “flipped tin” during the 1950s and 1960s to check for tinplate defects. My dad was a millwright at Wheeling-Pitt. He worked on the blast furnace. My uncle worked at Weirton Steel’s coke plant on Brown’s Island. My brother also worked at Weirton Steel and I worked at the research center for National Steel. I remember when the steel mills were the biggest employers in the Ohio River Valley. During the 1980s, 15,000 people were employed at Weirton Steel alone. Those days are gone, but recently a new company, Form Energy, has selected a 55-acre portion of Weirton Steel’s former site to build rechargeable iron/air batteries. NASA experimented with this type of battery back in the 1960s.

This past April, my husband and I went to Form Energy’s informational open-house for the new iron/air battery plant. The session took place at Weirton’s Millsop Community Center where representatives from various departments in the company answered our many questions. Some questions we had were: What exactly is an iron/air battery? How will it help renewable energy use? What types of jobs and how many jobs will it provide for the area?

We all know that iron rusts in the presence of oxygen. During this rusting process, the iron releases energy. That energy can be converted to electricity, and can be used to back up commercial-scale wind, solar and hydro-electric projects. If electricity is applied back to the battery, the process is reversed and the rust (iron-oxide) becomes iron again as oxygen is released. The batteries are designed for commercial-scale applications and can provide 100+ hours of energy; so wind, water and solar energy become reliable 24-7 throughout the world. The costs to produce iron/air batteries is 1/10th that of Lithium batteries. Iron/air batteries also have no risks of thermal run-away, are recyclable, contain no heavy metals, and pair well with Lithium-ion batteries. Iron/air batteries may be “the best solution to balance the multi-day variability of renewable energy due to their extremely low cost, safety, durability, and global scalability.”

Form Energy is an American company with more than 400 employees working at locations in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and California. The plant in West Virginia will employ at minimum 750 full-time employees. The $760 million dollar investment is expected to start production of batteries by late 2024 and expects to produce 500 megawatts of batteries annually.

One of the downsides of renewable energy that fossil fuel proponents are quick to point out is that “the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t blow all the time.” The iron/air battery will provide the backup system needed for these renewable energy sources during downtimes. “Each iron/air battery is about the size of a washer/dryer set and holds 50 iron-air cells, which are then surrounded by an electrolyte (similar to the Duracell in your TV remote).” These batteries could be a game changer for renewable energy systems.

The combined manufacturing capabilities of two solar companies in Northwest Ohio (First Solar and Toledo Solar) place Ohio second only to China when it comes to being the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer. Toledo Solar makes about one million panels a year; one every 30 seconds. Their panels are shipped across the nation for residential and commercial buildings. First Solar supplies panels for the utility-scale solar sector.

Even though Ohio leads the world in production of solar panels, anti-solar voices seek to halt new solar projects in the state. They claim that large-scale solar projects are destroying farm lands. That claim is simply not true and in fact research is being conducted all over the world to help integrate solar energy production with agriculture. It is called agrivoltaics.

Recently, the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority issued $275 million in bonds to finance the Madison Fields Solar Project in Madison County, Ohio. This project will combine cattle and crops with solar panels. “By working together on the same land, farmers and energy developers can realize benefits for all involved while preserving the agricultural character of the state’s rural communities.”

Researchers have found that the crops best suited to be grown under solar panels can vary from region to region. Oregon State University Department of Biological and Ecological engineering published a peer reviewed report “Solar PV Power Potential is Greatest Over Croplands.” Some of their findings concluded that solar panels create a sort of micro-climate for certain crops, and the crops create cooler conditions for the panels which enhances their efficiency. Some plants that have been successfully grown under panels or alongside them include: aloe vera, tomatoes, biogas maize, pasture grass, and lettuce. In the Pacific Northwest, barley and other grasses worked well. Additionally, berries offered the highest yields and also had the highest increase solar efficiency. Some crops that did not do well included taller varieties like sunflowers, apples and corn.

In 2022, Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) jointly proposed legislation that could catalyze the growth of agrivoltaics in the U.S. If passed into law, the Act would invest $15 million per year from 2024 to 2028, a $75 million total toward agrivoltaics research and demonstration projects. A report from the Ohio University Extension said of agrivoltaics, “many farmers support PV solar because it reduces volatility of future energy costs, has low maintenance costs, positive environmental attributes, and once the initial capital investment is recovered, the fuel is free.”


Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in environmental studies and is certified in hazardous materials regulations.