Region hopes for jolt from batteries, electrification
Adam Wells is charged up about a plan to create a “battery and electrification economy” in Southwest Virginia.
“This is the most exciting thing that I’m working on,” says Wells, Appalachian Voices’ Norton-based regional director of community and economic development. The environmental nonprofit led the effort that persuaded GO Virginia, the state-funded economic development initiative, to commit $486,000 toward attracting energy storage and electrification manufacturing jobs in the region. The Thompson Charitable Foundation is contributing $160,000 to the initiative, and local industry will contribute $40,000.
“What it’s really about is trying to help our existing manufacturing companies to pivot into advanced battery manufacturing or components that are related to that,” says Jonathan Belcher, executive director of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority.
“The reason why we think that has potential in the area is because there already is some knowledge base in battery technology coming out of the mining industry,” says Belcher, so the battery cluster plan will “fit well with the focus we already had.”
Meanwhile, VCEDA also is talking to companies involved in battery manufacturing and solar panel manufacturing about relocating to the area.
An economic impact study by Appalachian Voices and Ascent Virginia, a nonprofit promoting clean technology jobs and economic development in Virginia, estimates the project will generate 206 local jobs.
Four local companies targeted for expansion — AMR PEMCO, West River Conveyors & Machinery Co., Simmons Equipment Co. and Lawrence Brothers Inc. — all make components related to batteries or electrical systems and all have “already taken steps to diversify their companies into new markets so they’re not just exclusively serving coal,” according to Wells.
It’s not yet clear exactly which new sectors the companies will branch out into serving with battery and electrification manufacturing. Project-funded studies by the University of Michigan’s Economic Growth Institute and the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center will help determine that. ECI will evaluate the area’s economic ecosystem. Weldon Cooper will develop a plan for each company.
“At this point, it’s kind of segment-agnostic,” Wells says. The focus may be related to grid-level energy storage, but it’s more likely to produce components for electric cars and other vehicles. Lawrence Brothers, for instance, makes battery boxes for continuous miners, so “it’s not a giant leap,” Wells says, “to go from making battery cases for underground miners to making battery cases for Priuses or battery casings for forklifts or something like that.”