Government Invests $5M to Turn the Rust Belt Into the Lithium Belt

The Department of Energy has invested millions in a battery manufacturing program in Appalachia as part of the clean energy transition.
Government Invests $5M to Turn the Rust Belt Into the Lithium Belt
Image: krblokhin via Getty Images

The Department of Energy (DOE) is launching a battery manufacturing program in West Virginia with a $5 million investment that could turn the rust belt into a lithium belt.

DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm and a cohort of federal officials, including Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Senator Joe Manchin traveled to Charleston, West Virginia last week to announce that it would begin a pilot training program in Appalachia, to create “good-paying union jobs” in a region that has since been left behind by a dying coal industry. The goal, the agency said in a press release after the visit, is to build out an independent national supply chain for batteries and minerals that will be essential to the renewable transition, and to “break U.S dependence on China.” 

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“American leadership in the global battery supply chain will be based not only on our innovative edge, but also on our skilled workforce of engineers, designers, scientists, and production workers,” Granholm said in the statement. “We should be building the full supply chain here.” 

In a part of the country where former fossil fuel towns are pockmarked with empty storefronts and lined by abandoned oil and gas wells, the DOE is making bets that renewable energy could offer a new way out from economic tailspin. The plan expresses specifically an intent to target pilot programs in communities “where energy and automotive industries once held sway.” 

“This community is embracing new chances and opportunity in their own way,” Granholm told local broadcaster WSAZ on Friday. “Nobody is coming here to tell West Virginia what it should do because West Virginia is figuring it out and it’s really exciting.” 

The program is part of a broader endeavor by a federal Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization that uses infrastructure dollars to build out jobs in 13 Appalachian states, from Mississippi to New York. Other actions taken by working group member agencies: the Department of the Interior announced funding for abandoned mine reclamation projects in West Virginia; the Environmental Protection Agency created two grants for job training and environmental cleanup in Huntington; and the Economic Development Administration announced a federal award for a former mining town in Kentucky. 

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Though the pilot program is specifically earmarked for workforce development, fragments of the energy industry have recently committed time to exploring the feasibility of extracting lithium from parts of Appalachia. Though much of the lithium industry in the US is clustered in the west, particularly in Southern California, according to the US Geological Survey, one of 20 known lithium deposits in the US surrounds Charlotte, North Carolina. In November, the region became part of an environmental justice debate after local mineral developer Piedmont Lithium Inc. launched a bid to build four 500-foot deep pit lithium mines, which was met by split reaction from residents. 

“Plenty of folks in this rural pocket aren’t willing to go that far,” E&E News reporter Mike Soroghan wrote about the proposed mines in November. “They don’t want the persistent blasting, traffic, dust and environmental degradation that comes with pit mining. It’s the kind of opposition that has dogged fossil fuel projects in the past and isn’t going away just because the projects now support clean energy such as electric vehicles.”

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In February, mineral extraction company American Resources announced it had discovered “meaningful concentrations” of lithium and cobalt in Central Appalachia. Lithium is also present in West Virginia coals, and can be extracted from tailings left behind by now-defunct coal plants.

Last April, the DOE announced it was plugging $19-million into research for that, too—a move that Granholm said in a press release at the time would put “the very same fossil fuel communities that have powered our nation for decades” at “the forefront of the clean energy economy. The move that led to the creation of a research consortium at Pennsylvania State University devoted to identifying stores of minerals that will be essential to the renewable transition across Appalachia. 

“We really don’t have a database or an assessment of what is out there and how much of our demand can be met with these secondary resources,” said Sarma Pisupati, professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State and director of the project told rural news outlet The Daily Yonder in July. “That’s what’s missing. This is very crucial for industry to have a strategy for developing these resources and making them commercially extractable and available.”

The area has also recently been the focus of other alternative energy proposals. Last month, a group of major fossil fuel companies announced a pact to build a hydrogen hub in Appalachia, a prospect that a number of local environmental groups said would only require and enable further oil and gas production. But the tone of last week’s announcement feels different to local environmental groups, like the Ohio River Valley Institute, who told Motherboard in an email that the announcement was “great news.” 

“Unlike some federal efforts, such as those to develop blue hydrogen and to introduce carbon capture in coal and gas-fired power generation, there is a strong economic rationale and a market for cobalt-free batteries,” Sean O’Leary, senior researcher at the Institute said. “That suggests the business and the jobs have a good chance of being viable for the long term. And the initiative helps West Virginia join the rest of the nation in benefitting from clean energy transition.”