By Matthew Young, RealWV
Gov. Jim Justice, on Friday, signed a bill to officially establish the partnership between Form Energy and the State of West Virginia. HB 2882, which was fast tracked through both the House of Delegates and the Senate – albeit with considerable resistance from select members of both bodies – allocates $105 million in funding to Form Energy for the creation of an iron-air battery manufacturing facility in the state’s northern panhandle. West Virginia’s total investment in the project over the next six-years is estimated to be $290 million.
Proponents of the plan view it as an investment in the sustainability of West Virginia’s future, which has the potential to quickly create 750 high-paying jobs. The plan’s dejectors, however, see this as an assault on the coal industry, and a risky investment in an unproven technology. Greenbrier County’s two Republican Delegates, Todd Lonanacre and Mike Honaker, are on opposite sides of the debate.
“Todd (Longanacre) and I have actually talked about this,” Honaker told RealWV on Friday. “I voted for the investment. We have the opportunity to bring 750 jobs – and that’s up front.”
Longanacre, however, voted against HB 2882. While speaking with RealWV on Feb. 10, Longanacre said, “I hope I’m wrong about this, I hope it produces jobs, but to give hundreds of millions of dollars to an out-of-state company – if it had been a different kind of company with a different kind of product that’s proven, maybe then it would have made sense.”
Longanacre also cited Form Energy CEO Mateo Jaramillo’s documented desire to eliminate the nation’s usage of fossil fuels as further cause for his apprehension, adding, “I have no problem with green energy. I just don’t want to use public money to fund it. I want to see it be able to stand on its own.”
While Jaramillo’s off-handed dismissal of coal was a red flag for Longanacre, Honaker was not phased by the CEO’s remarks, noting, “To make those batteries, we have to burn coal. Coal is going to be viable for the next 100 years. Form Energy does not hurt our coal industry.”
All told, the initial phase of the Form Energy facility is expected to cost $760 million, including the state’s full investment of $290 million. The remaining $470 million will come from private investors, such as Amazon Chairman Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
“These jobs have an average salary of $63,000 a year,” Honaker said. “And then you start looking at the downstream economic development that ultimately projects up to 4,000 jobs by the time this is all said and done. And what spins out of those? Restaurants, daycare centers, a higher tax-base to invest in education – all of these things.”
A counter argument offered by opponents of the bill raises a simple question: rather than investing nearly $300 million into a single, out-of-state company, why not divide those funds evenly among West Virginia’s 55 counties, and allow them to develop their own economies in the manner of their choosing.
“Those options were not on the table,” Honaker said in response to the argument. “At that moment when I had to push a button to cast a vote, I didn’t have A, B, C, or ‘none of the above.’ All I had was ‘yes or no.’”
“And the second thing I’d say about that,” Honaker continued, “A lot of times the people who are saying, ‘I can’t believe we’re spending this much money on a company to come here,’ these are the same people who are saying, ‘We need to get more people off of SNAP. We need to get more people off of unemployment. We need to get more people off of welfare.’”
“Do you want to spend millions and millions of dollars on welfare programs that you’re complaining about, or do we want to take those millions of dollars and invest them in a company that will come here and put those people to work with great jobs and benefits?” Honaker added.
“We can invest millions in West Virginia’s workforce, or we can invest millions in West Virginia’s welfare system,” Honaker concluded. “That’s why I voted for the Form Energy bill.”
With the governor’s signature now on the bill, it seems that, for now, the debate over HB 2882 is moot. Construction on the facility is expected to begin later this year.