Site work has begun as Form Energy, a Somerville, Mass., energy battery storage developer, prepares to build a $760-million manufacturing plant on the site of a West Virginia steel mill that closed two decades ago. 

The new facility will use iron, water and air as key components of batteries made at less cost than the dominant technology on the market and with longer storage duration than those made from lithium ion, which require hard-to-find critical minerals. Form Energy said it selected the site after considering hundreds of locations in 16 states over the past year. 

Chosen as project construction manager is Pittsburgh-based Massaro Construction Group with Stantec named architect and infrastructure engineering lead and The Thrasher Group as civil engineer, the owner confirmed.

The greatest challenge to constructing the factory in the town of Weirton will be “the sheer speed with which we need to build,” says Soufiane Halily, Form Energy senior director of factory engineering, noting with the firm goal to launch production in less than one year. 

Foundation work will begin in June, followed by steel structure installation in July and by utilities construction in September, with the building set to be erected by December, said Halily. Operation is set to begin in mid-to-late 2024, with potential next phase expansion by 2025. Time to market is an imperative for battery fabrication plants in the increasingly crowded battery sector.

A Form Energy spokeswoman earlier told ENR that the project targets a 700,000-sq-ft footprint, with about 1 million sq ft of manufacturing space and an annual manufacturing capacity of 500 MW. 

Meeting the aggressive timeline will require building the factory the way “you would develop a fully integrated product, making sure that one cohesive team thinks holistically through how the building will be designed, what equipment will go where and how people will interact with that equipment from the very start,” Halily says. “This is what will enable us to build the most efficient factory possible, as quickly as possible.”

He says this is “achievable,” but will require designing the factory around currently available materials. The goal is to avoid a situation where an ideal design is proposed but companies have to wait months to a year for materials to arrive, he says. 

The project is considered the largest capital investment in Weirton in decades and the state’s second-largest investment in 2022. The $760-million investment includes a commitment of $290 million from the state. 6-year-old Form Energy's financial backers include Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy Ventures and other corporate titans including Luxembourg-based steelmaker ArcelorMittal, which has promised to provide the iron that'll be used in the batteries.

In what will be its main manufacturing facility, the first iron-air batteries that use the principle of "reversible rusting" to generate energy are expected to begin rolling out in 2024 “for broad commercialization,” according to Form Energy. 

The firm predicts the cost to store energy with its multi-day iron-air battery technology to be about 1/10th the cost of lithium ion with no rare earths like lithium necessary in the battery cells. Iron-air is a battery technology developed in the 1960s that was largely abandoned by consumer and automotive battery manufacturers because of the size and weight of the batteries. For grid applications, however, they could have advantages over experiments conducted with hundreds of Tesla-sized lithium-ion batteries that have found them to have high costs and fast burnout of battery cells. The iron electrodes in an iron-air battery can survive more than 10,000 charge/discharge cycles and have a service life of around 30 years, according to Form Energy. In addition, iron-air batteries are insensitive to overcharging, partial and deep discharge, problems that have hampered large-scale lithium-ion-to-grid energy experiments. Form Energy says its iron-air batteries can hold up to four days of electricity each. 

Form Energy has already entered the region with a small manufacturing facility in Eighty Four, Pa., where it is testing the battery technology to prepare for large-scale commercialization in Weirton. 

In April, Form Energy held open house events to introduce itself to the Weirton community and allow residents to learn about construction and hiring plans. Over two days, some 300 people attended, including 30 Form Energy team members. When operating at full capacity, the factory will employ more than 750 people. The firm has said it is committed to building “strong partnerships with labor unions … and will require all construction bidders to include union labor when possible. 

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) announced in December 2022 that Form Energy would partner with the state to build its first iron-air battery manufacturing plant on a 55-acre site in the state’s northern panhandle along the Ohio River. 

Form Energy also stands to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act, which now allows up to $10 billion in tax credits for investments in projects including grid modernization equipment or components. "The IRA represents the largest single investment ever in America's energy future and will enable a more reliable, resilient, and secure electric grid to be made in America,” Halily says.

Last year Form Energy signed contracts to build pilot-scale battery storage facilities for Georgia Power Co. and Great River Energy, Minnesota’s second-largest electric utility, set to go online in 2024. Both are targeting reduced coal dependence.