Viewed as a swing voter in an evenly divided U.S. Senate, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has attracted a spotlight wherever he goes.
With that spotlight as intense as ever this week as pressure builds on him and other lawmakers to come up with a federal infrastructure package, Manchin shared it with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on her first official visit to West Virginia on Thursday and Friday.
Manchin and Granholm toured the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s Morgantown facility Friday, and announced new Department of Energy funding for West Virginia-based projects a day after announcing a new collaboration between a Huntington steelmaker and offshore wind companies.
Steel of West Virginia Inc., which employs 550 people in Huntington, will supply parts to Virginia-based Dominion Energy, Denmark-based Ørsted Wind Energy and New England-based Eversource for a new U.S. offshore wind turbine construction vessel for projects in the Atlantic Ocean, officials said.
The ship is slated to enter operations in 2023.
The Department of Energy announced $5 million in department funding for the West Virginia University Research Corp. for a $6.25 million research and development project managed by the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
The nonprofit, which supports research at the university, will develop an advanced component that can improve the ability of thermal power plants to generate highly flexible, low-carbon power from traditional, renewable and nuclear energy.
Manchin and Granholm heard Friday from members of a federal work group, created by President Joe Biden to tackle climate change, about revitalizing communities affected by coal mine and power plant closures at the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s Morgantown facility.
The Interagency Working Group released a report in April identifying Southern West Virginia as the area of the country most in need of focused federal investment because of its high dependence on coal and coal power plant jobs.
The Department of Energy also announced a $1 million award Friday to the Morgantown-based U.S. Research Impact Alliance for an accelerator program that will identify and develop federally funded technologies designed to aid the energy and manufacturing industries.
The U.S. Research Alliance pairs research and industry partners to apply federally funded research in the field, focusing on sustainable development, energy efficiency and carbon emissions reduction.
Manchin seized on the announcement of the Steel of West Virginia partnership with offshore wind companies to push a proposal he unveiled with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in March that would reinstate and build on a tax credit for investment in manufacturing facilities for clean energy technologies.
“This partnership is a great example of a project that would qualify for the 48C tax credit,” Manchin said in a news release.
The proposed American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act that Manchin has worked on with Stabenow would follow the Section 48C tax credit, which provided a 30% investment tax credit to clean energy manufacturing facilities in 2009, 2010 and 2013.
The bill would make $8 billion available in tax credits, including up to $4 billion for communities where coal mines have shuttered.
Granholm, in a news release, hailed the announcement of Steel of West Virginia’s partnership with offshore wind companies as proof of West Virginia’s ability to contribute to the growing clean energy market, and touted the White House’s federal infrastructure investment proposal.
“The American Jobs Plan makes clean energy investments that will create millions of jobs for the future, and West Virginians are uniquely poised to benefit and play a critical part in fueling America’s clean energy competitiveness,” Granholm said.
But clean energy advocates have grown restless as months-long negotiations to secure an infrastructure deal between the White House and Senate Republicans — led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. — have come up empty.
Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations, called the GOP’s approach to the negotiations a “rope-a-dope” in a statement last week, criticizing Capito and other Republicans for not accepting the White House’s counteroffer that cut more than $500 billion in investments.
Capito’s office said she and Biden agreed to connect again Monday after negotiating by phone Friday afternoon.
Walsh called on congressional Democrats to pass Biden’s original $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal, rather than his $1.7 trillion counteroffer that removed funding for manufacturing, research and development.
But Manchin has steadfastly refused to consider eliminating the Senate’s filibuster rule that would allow Democrats to pass the infrastructure proposal without clearing a 60-vote threshold in the upper chamber.
More than 100 West Virginia elected officials, organizations and businesses signed a letter sent to Manchin on Wednesday stressing the importance of clean energy in creating jobs and improving public health in the state.
West Virginia Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, was one of the signatories and state legislators who gathered with Granholm, Manchin and Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., in Morgantown on Thursday.
“It was a good opportunity for the secretary to hear from West Virginians about their concerns, but also about the opportunities that are here and the willingness of people to embrace some of those new opportunities to bring jobs to West Virginia,” Hansen said.
One of the main concerns, Hansen said, is coal communities being forgotten, instead of made whole, amid the nation’s energy transition. But he views the Steel of West Virginia partnership as proof that supply chains for renewable energy projects include products like steel already produced in West Virginia.
“You don’t necessarily have to be building solar panels or wind turbines here,” Hansen said. “We could be producing the materials that are used to build those projects.”
Hansen also sees West Virginia as fortunate, for having the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, and exploring how fossil fuels can still be used consistent with climate goals like those set by the Biden administration.
Manchin and Granholm toured the WVU Energy Institute on Friday to see how rare earth elements can be extracted from acid mine drainage.
“[T]hat would change the economics of cleaning up these old, abandoned coal mines, because, instead of treating the waste, you’ll be creating a viable product,” said Hansen, founder of the Morgantown-based environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies.
The U.S. Department of Energy awarded $19 million for 13 projects in traditionally fossil fuel-producing communities in April to support production of rare earth elements and other minerals for manufacturing batteries, magnets and other clean energy components.
United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts applauded Granholm in a statement for going underground at a Harrison County mine during her visit.
“Our union has been asking for more than a decade for someone with authority in Washington to tour a mine and meet these workers face to face,” Roberts said. “I am so glad that she stepped up and did that, and I thank Senator Manchin for facilitating it.”
Hansen said he is optimistic Manchin will contribute far more than coal mine visits as a federal infrastructure deal hangs in the balance and West Virginia’s own infrastructure — given a ‘D’ grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers last year — keeps deteriorating.
“Senator Manchin is a very shrewd politician,” Hansen said. “The negotiation is not over.”