Energy Storage

Billionaire-backed 'Iron-Air' Battery Maker Picks WV Site for First Factory

A battery manufacturing company with plenty of high-profile financial backing said it has picked a site for its first factory that will build “iron-air” batteries. Form Energy touts its technology as a breakthrough for long-duration storage of solar and wind power.

Form, which counts Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and British tycoon Richard Branson among its supporters, was founded in 2017 by veterans of the energy storage sector. The group said its mission was to create low-cost, multi-day energy storage systems. Company officials have said their iron-air battery can store electricity for as much as 100 hours. They’ve also said the technology will be competitive with electricity produced by traditional power plants.

Form, which is headquartered in Somerville, Massachusetts, on Dec. 22 said it will begin construction of its first factory in Weirton, West Virginia, in 2023. The company expects to begin manufacturing commercial iron-air battery systems the following year. The plant’s cost is estimated at about $760 million, and officials said the project would create 750 jobs. Form completed a $450 million Series E funding round in October.

Incentive Package

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said his state is providing Form with an incentive package worth as much as $290 million in what he called asset-based, performance financing for the factory’s construction. The package includes $75 million for land purchase and building construction in Weirton. Justice said he will work with state lawmakers and the federal government to obtain an additional $215 million.

Mateo Jaramillo, Form’s CEO and co-founder, said Weirton was chosen from among more than 500 possible locations for the company’s manufacturing plant. He called Weirton “a historic steel community that sits on a river and has the rich heritage and know-how to make great things out of iron.” Jaramillo, who headed Tesla’s energy-storage business before leaving in 2016, said his company expects to be generating meaningful revenue in 2025.

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said, “West Virginia continues to be a leader in energy innovation, and the good-paying jobs and new economic opportunities this will bring are exactly what I had in mind as I negotiated the Inflation Reduction Act [IRA]. I have said it time and again: The path forward is innovation, not elimination, and with this announcement West Virginia and Form Energy are doing just that.”

This is a rendering of the Cambridge Energy Storage Project, a demonstration plant in Minnesota operated by Great River Energy that will use Form Energy’s “iron-air” battery technology. Source: Great River Energy

Manchin, who has used his political influence to help his state’s fossil fuel industry, particularly the coal sector, has said his efforts to keep coal-fired power plants operating despite climate impacts is because of his state’s dependence on mining and its associated jobs. West Virginia ranks second among U.S. coal-producing states, behind only Wyoming, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The agency said West Virginia is the nation’s fourth-largest marketer of natural gas.

Manchin, though, also worked with President Biden during negotiations for the IRA to streamline the permitting process for energy projects, which is expected to support renewable energy development across the country. Justice, touting the energy industry’s importance to his state, said, We want West Virginia to be known forevermore as that energy state that always figured it out.”

Storing Renewable Energy

Form claims its technology can store large amounts of renewable energy for days at a time. Company officials have said the scalable, modular technology provides a solution for the issue of storing renewable energy for long periods to compensate for prolonged high electricity demand, or during periods of low wind and solar generation. The group said its technology moves beyond lithium-ion batteries that store energy for shorter durations, and would lessen the need to run natural gas- or coal-fired power plants to backstop the power grid.

The company has not publicly detailed much of its technology, other than statements saying its batteries would use “some of the safest, cheapest, and most abundant materials on the planet—low-cost iron, water, and air.”

Jaramillo, speaking during Thursday’s announcement of the new factory, said, “To reach renewable energy independence, to meet supply-chain challenges, to run the grid reliably and affordably, we need new, domestically manufactured energy-storage technologies capable of cost-effectively storing electricity for multiple days.”

Form in statements has said its iron-air technology will be able to “store electricity for 100 hours at system costs competitive with legacy power plants. The company’s pioneering multi-day battery will reshape the electric system to reliably run on 100% low-cost renewable energy, every day of the year.”

The company last year said its battery modules “will produce electricity for one-tenth the cost of any technology available today for grid storage.”

Minnesota-based Great River Energy has planned a project that will use Form Energy’s technology. Great River last year said its Cambridge Energy Storage Project, expected online in 2024, will be the first commercial deployment of Form’s multi-day energy storage battery. The company said the Cambridge facility would be a 1-MW/150-MWh demonstration plant, able to provide 1 MW of electricity output for 150 straight hours.

“While other battery technologies employ expensive and rare metals, iron is one of the safest, cheapest and most abundant minerals on Earth,” said David Saggau, Great River Energy president and CEO, in a statement last year announcing the project. “And, of course, our northern Minnesota member-owner cooperatives are located on one of the world’s richest iron ore reserves.”

Form earlier this year also announced it is working on a long-duration energy storage project with Georgia Power, though that installation is reportedly still in the regulatory process.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

SHARE this article