A Cog in the Gates Machine
Some West Virginia legislators wonder whether a Bill Gates–backed battery plant is worth the cultural cost.
A battle is shaping up over a proposed battery plant in Weirton, West Virginia. And it’s just the sort of fight that needs to happen.
A startup company called Form Energy is trying to open an iron-air battery plant in the state’s northern town. The West Virginia Economic Development Authority (EDA) voted to allocate $75 million to the project in late December, and Governor Jim Justice is working with the legislature to secure an additional $215 million of state funds, which he told West Virginia Metro News is “needed to finalize our agreement.”
But some legislators are working against the governor’s wishes.
Delegate Pat McGeehan, whose district neighbors the site of the proposed project, told The American Conservative that “Form Energy is a corporate enterprise that essentially just exists on paper right now. They have a website, but that’s about it.” The company’s lack of credentials is not all that concerns the legislator, though.
He sent a letter to the venture’s board of directors on January 24 that alleges problematic connections between the entity and its early investors. The startup is backed by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the fund started by Bill Gates in 2016 that invests, per Forbes, in “scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to deliver cheap and reliable clean energy to the world.” Saudi Aramco, the Saudi government’s oil company, participated in the first round of Form Energy’s venture capital financing, and other investors are intimately involved with the Chinese.
But enthusiasm on the part of state officials in support of the proposed plant would make an outsider think that these connections don’t exist or that there are no questions worth asking. On the one hand, their zeal is understandable—any sensible elected official would jump at the chance to vote in favor of a potentially job-creating legislative package and report home with the good news.
In this case, however, the zeal seems at least marginally excessive. The governor said that “[t]his is as good of an announcement as could ever possibly be made.” And state Senator Ryan Weld, the upper chamber legislator from Weirton, said that “[t]his will be the day when we think back and say that’s where the tide turned for Weirton. All the steps in Weirton’s comeback have led to this, and it’s only the beginning of the story.”
Their critics are not suggesting that the governor is a tool for the Chinese or Saudis, or that the plan's proponents have some personal benefit to be gained. Delegate Riley Keaton, for his part, grants that the possible economic benefit to the northern West Virginia area is a “question of substance.” His questions primarily concern how much private capital is at risk in the deal: “If the business deal is not a true business deal—in that nobody is going to lose their shirt if things go south—you lose all the benefits of market force… In that context, I have a hard time believing the economic impact that’s been ascribed to the project.”
Keaton compared the current plan for Weirton with another project for a facility in Mason County in the state’s western region. The delegate predicts that a Nucor Corp. steel plant in the county will eventually yield about 7,000 jobs. But Keaton’s confidence does not extend to Form Energy:
Hey, who is this? Well, we don’t really want to tell you quite who it is. Here’s our boy, Mateo; he’ll come down and tell you everything’s okay. Oh, and you want to know what we make? Well, it’s kind of like making electricity out of rust. And we’re all supposed to go, “oh, well, neat,” and give them $215 million.
The Mateo in question is Mateo Jaramillo, CEO of Form Energy. And he wasn’t kidding about making electricity out of rust: that’s the bridge in Brooklyn that Mateo is selling Jim Justice.
Keaton’s practical questions about skin-in-the-game and the place of securitized federal subsidies in private capital is complemented by McGeehan’s cultural and political concerns. He views a successful deal with Form Energy as inconsistent with the common good: “It does not appear that they share the traditional values that our ancestors in West Virginia handed down. They also appear to be hostile to the industries that have provided the raw power for the American nation out of West Virginia for generations.”
It's difficult to argue with him on that point: Form’s website claims that they “commit significant resources towards equity, inclusion, and diversity” and displays a graph of their workplace demographics with a category for “non-binary” employees.
The state's treasurer, Riley Moore, is no stranger to this sort of debate. Moore, who is running for Congress in West Virginia's 2nd district, told TAC that "the questions about foreign investment and ownership are certainly prudent and entirely appropriate by the legislature... The people have a right to know."
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McGeehan’s interest in the maintenance of local culture in the face of a corporate agenda with questionable foreign connections is a matter of first principles. The West Virginia state government has the opportunity to respond to these disparate priorities: They can be welcomed out of monetary desperation or rejected for the sake of civic coherence.
And as a matter of political instinct, the West Virginia GOP should be the first organization ready to confidently refuse gifts from anything Bill Gates touches. Regardless of whether the race to renewable energy is a worthwhile political project—in spite of the evidence against it—state negotiators should consider that Gates’s trip to West Virginia would’ve felt as foreign to him as his previous trips to Uganda: Gates’s people are not McGeehan’s people.
These legislators are right to see their state more as a heritage to be preserved than as a depository to be maintained. And no matter how impressive the supposed short-term economic benefit, much can be lost when a place forgets its identity—especially a place they call almost heaven.