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Surrounded by drawers full of drill bits, bolts and pliers, the secretaries of the U.S. Energy and Interior departments, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and an energy-startup executive promised a clean energy future to West Virginians that they could get their hands on.

Officials gathered inside a shared manufacturing space at the Robert C. Byrd Institute at Marshall University to announce plans for an electric battery factory in West Virginia, a battery workforce training initiative and $2.2 million in federal funding for a coal waste-sourced manufacturing project in Bluefield.

The goals, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said, are to break U.S. dependence on China and other countries for minerals needed to build clean energy infrastructure and stabilizing the economic future of those left without jobs amid the energy transition.

“We want to make sure we have this skilled workforce training program to be able to ensure that no worker is left behind,” Granholm said.

Granholm applauded Sparkz, a California-based battery supply startup, for committing to build a battery plant in an unspecified location in West Virginia that would employ at least 350 people — and partnering with the United Mine Workers of America.

Sparkz founder and CEO Sanjiv Malhotra said his startup, founded in 2019, would recruit and train dislocated miners to work at the factory.

“The real work starts now,” Malhotra said.

Malhotra said the factory site would be announced in the coming weeks.

The company is focusing on contributing to a battery supply chain independent of China-sourced materials, Malhotra said.

“We should not be relying upon countries like China or others,” Granholm said. “We should be building a full supply chain here.”

UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sanson said the partnership fit with energy transition principles the union released last year that supported buildout of renewable supply chain manufacturing in coalfield areas with hiring preference for dislocated miners and families.

Malhotra said the Sparkz workforce could expand significantly beyond its initial estimate of 350 people if it scales up power capacity.

Granholm announced $5 million to support up to five training pilot programs in energy and automotive communities bringing together labor and industry partners to establish union jobs in the domestic battery supply chain.

Pilot program partners will include the UMWA, the AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers, said Granholm, a former governor of Michigan.

Pilot program sites are yet to be determined.

“I think you’ll be well-positioned, I’ll just say that,” Granholm said.

Granholm also announced $2.2 million in Department of Energy funding for a project, in which X-MAT Carbon Core Composites LLC and partners will build a prototype structure to test coal-derived building materials, including roof tiles, siding panels, bricks and blocks.

The project will produce a detailed design for a carbon-based building and update a technical analysis to enhance the technology as it moves closer to a demonstration phase, the Energy Department said in a news release.

Coal waste comprising the building material will be sourced from active coal preparation facilities or existing waste storage structures and converted into building materials that are lighter and fire-resistant.

The Energy Department announced last month that it is collecting information through March from government agencies, industry members, developers and potentially affected communities on the construction and operation of a rare-earth element facility to turn mine waste into valuable materials for clean energy technology.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted in November provides $140 million for the rare-earth element and critical minerals extraction and separation refinery program.

The department has committed to investing $2.91 billion to bolster production of advanced batteries vital to growing clean energy technologies, including electric vehicles and energy storage, under the federal infrastructure plan that President Joe Biden signed into law in November.

Last year, the Energy Department released a blueprint for lithium batteries in which it committed to setting up a secure battery materials and technology supply chain with its partners by 2030.

That’s an ambitious target, given that China accounted for 76% of commissioned manufacturing capacity for lithium-ion batteries in 2020, according to the Energy Department.

China boasts the largest global electric vehicle market and dominates the processing of minerals and raw materials for making lithium-ion batteries.

Manchin, whose withholding of support for Biden’s Build Back Better domestic agenda has blocked key clean energy tax credits, admitted that he has been skeptical of supply chains and electric vehicles because he doesn’t want the United States to be “held captive” by foreign supply chains.

Manchin made a similar comment to one he offered last week recalling standing in line in 1974 to buy gas, saying he doesn’t want a similar experience regarding battery procurement for electric vehicles.

But Manchin, a coal brokerage founder who has supported an “all-of-the-above” energy approach that includes coal and other fossil fuels, argued that the announcements point the way to a more diverse state economy amid the energy transition.

“It’s a new day,” Manchin said.

The BlueGreen Alliance, a national alliance of labor organizations and environmental groups, hailed the Department of Energy’s training pilot program initiative.

“We are particularly happy to see in this announcement a focus on including labor voices and prioritization of the creation of the kind of good, union jobs West Virginia needs,” Dan Taylor, Appalachian regional field organizer for the BlueGreen Alliance, said in an email.

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or mtony@hdmediallc

.com. Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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