Advocates see missed opportunities as Virginia lags its neighbors in clean energy manufacturing

News Room
13 Min Read

When the nonprofit Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) began tracking where financial incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act were spurring clean energy manufacturing growth and jobs nationwide, Zach Amittay figured Virginia would snag the top slot in the Southeast.

So he was startled that the state has consistently lagged behind South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia since E2 began its research after the IRA became law in August 2022.

“Overall, Virginia pales in comparison to its neighbors, especially those farther South,” said Amittay, Southeast advocate for E2. “And that’s kind of an irony considering how Virginia’s framework for clean energy policies is driving demand for solar, electric vehicles, battery storage and offshore wind.”

Through April, companies have announced at least 305 major clean energy projects in 40 states and Puerto Rico, according to data E2 has gathered. Those projects are tied to 105,400-plus jobs and more than $123 billion in capital investments.

Of those 305 projects, just four — two connected to offshore wind, one to hydrogen and one to modernizing the electrical grid — have Virginia connections. 

Meanwhile, Georgia has lured 27 projects, South Carolina, 24, and North Carolina, 19. 

“North and South Carolina and Georgia are doing everything in their power to attract companies,” Amittay said. “They’re launching a full-court press by recruiting, offering state incentives and reducing tax liabilities. It shows they recognize this is the future of the economy and they want to be a part of that.”

E2, a national, nonpartisan group of investors, business leaders and professionals, launched its research project to bring more clarity to the IRA allocation process.

“For the average layperson, it’s inscrutable,” Amittay said. “We figured we could dedicate staff time to aggregating information and making it more digestible.”

Virginia has its share of success stories but needs to double down on efforts to entice more manufacturers that are part of the renewable energy supply chain, he noted. Deploying solar panels and wind turbines is only half of the clean energy equation.

“When it comes to attracting investments, the state is missing out by doing the opposite and, it seems, pushing them away.”

Christian Martinez, spokesman for Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, countered that take.

He pointed to the administration’s 2022 all-of-the-above Energy Plan as underscoring Virginia’s commitment to being a premier business location while also recognizing energy as a crucial productivity driver.

Without citing specifics, Martinez noted that Youngkin “looks forward to sharing details on several economic development opportunities … when they are ready.”

Rejecting EV battery plant set wrong tone

While state leaders can’t control company whims, Amittay and other clean energy advocates do directly blame Youngkin for nixing a proposal by Ford Motor Co. in late 2022 to build a plant to manufacture electric vehicle batteries on an industrial site in Pittsylvania County on the North Carolina border.

The automaker’s decision to partner with a Chinese company posed too high of a security risk, Youngkin said at the time.

“Virginians should be wary of Chinese communist intrusion into Virginia’s economy,” he said at his January 2023 State of the Commonwealth address, directing legislators to “send me a bill to prohibit dangerous foreign entities tied to the CCP from purchasing Virginia’s farmland.”

Youngkin’s concerns about China’s influence in this country could have been navigated so Virginia’s opportunity for the battery facility didn’t go up in smoke, Amittay said.

“At the time, he was trying to establish a national brand because he had bigger political ambitions,” he said about Youngkin’s presidential aspirations.

In February 2023, Ford announced that the battery plant would be built in Marshall, Michigan.

That loss not only hurt Virginia, Amittay said, but also cued companies that the state might be wary of rolling out the welcome mat to clean energy innovation.

Martinez said Youngkin’s concerns “that the Chinese Communist Party aims to dominate the world at the expense of the United States” were validated when Ford said last November it was scaling back its Michigan plans.

However, Ford explained it was curbing production capacity and employment expectations in Marshall — from 2,500 jobs 1,700 jobs — because of rising labor costs and consumers’ hesitancy to shift to electric vehicles.

IRA a magnet for hydrogen, wind, grid upgrade 

At its core, the Inflation Reduction Act is a massive package that dedicates $369 billion over 10 years to clean energy innovation via tax credits, rebates and other incentives. Many of its programs are designed to boost domestic manufacturing jobs as the country transitions away from fossil fuels.

The latter is a signal to stateside and international businesses, Amittay said, that the United States is serious about tamping down the emissions of heat-trapping gases that are causing climate change.

Thus far, the pull of the IRA’s promise has convinced four companies, Hitachi Energy, Fugro, Lyon Shipyard and Topsoe, to either expand or put down roots in Virginia, according to E2’s database.

Topsoe, a Danish company that focuses on emissions reduction technology, is the latest entrant.

In mid-April, it released plans to spend $400 million on a factory in Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, to manufacture specialized solid oxide electrolyzer cells essential for producing green hydrogen. It would employ 150.

While Topsoe has started the permitting and design process, company spokesman Gabriel Martinez said no timeline is set yet.

“The final investment decision will be dependent on market demand and regulatory developments,” he said, adding that the green hydrogen would be produced by Topsoe’s customers, not on-site in Virginia.

If built, Topsoe’s largest U.S. investment would be eligible for up to $136 million in IRA incentives, Gabriel Martinez said.

Another European company, Fugro, is in the midst of bumping up the workforce at its Americas Center of Expertise for Offshore Wind in Norfolk. The Dutch geo-data business first landed in Virginia in 2007 when it was hired to help expand nearby Portsmouth’s Craney Island Marine Terminal operated by the state Port Authority.

A few years later, Fugro began pivoting to offshore wind as possibilities for the industry took shape in coastal Virginia and beyond, said Peter Tattersfield, who directs wind business development in the Americas.

Dominion Energy is on the verge of beginning offshore construction on its 176-turbine wind farm 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. At peak capacity, it will generate 2.6 gigawatts of power.

Fugro deploys specialized equipment such as buoys, sensors and robots to capture information about water currents, wind speeds, wave heights and soil types to create detailed maps of the ocean floor and the surrounding maritime environment. Scientists also study sea mammal and fish habitat.

“Wind developers need to know what they’re building their turbines on and where they should be installing cables,” Tattersfield said. “Basically, we build an earth model so they can feel confident about their projects.”

Fugro will steadily add professional jobs to keep pace with the Biden administration’s goal of achieving 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, he said. The company isn’t in line to receive IRA money directly. Instead, business will grow as more and more wind developers take advantage of generous IRA incentives.

“Our industry is still in its infancy, but we’re strategically positioned in Virginia,” Tattersfield said. “A wind developer is like a general contractor who has all the incentives to get the house built. If he’s successful, then all the subcontractors are pulled along toward success too.”

Relatedly, Norfolk-based Lyon Shipyard announced last fall that it would be spending $8.5 million to increase its capacity so it can provide a range of services for the commercial ships and vessels that attend to offshore wind farms. The ship repair company, active along the Elizabeth River since 1928, expects to add 134 jobs.

Meanwhile, Hitachi Energy is investing $37 million to add 26,000 square feet of production space to its power transformer building in Halifax County to support the manufacture of bigger transformers specifically designed for utility and renewable energy markets.

Transformers are a crucial piece of grid resiliency because they stabilize voltage to ensure power flows efficiently and reliably.

Steve McKinney, the head of Hitachi’s transformer business in North America, said he expects the addition to the existing 607,000 square foot plant in South Boston to be online by the end of 2025. Hitachi will hire 165 employees to its current on-site workforce of 450.

McKinney said there’s a “good possibility” Hitachi would tap into IRA incentives to offset equipment costs, but didn’t yet know a dollar figure.

The Virginia investment is just a tiny slice of the $1.5 billion Hitachi is pouring into its transformer capacity globally as demand for electricity explodes because of the growth of everything from data centers to electric vehicles.

“A lot of the grid network was built decades ago, and it’s time to upgrade,” he said. “Who would have thought five years ago we would be having this conversation about this level of investment in clean energy provided by the IRA?”

Can Virginia catch up?

“We’re still in the early innings, but this is going to be transformational for the U.S.,” Amittay said about IRA infusions. “It’s complicated because there are a lot of technical details, a lot of agencies involved and some funding programs haven’t been rolled out yet.”

Despite those hurdles nationwide, Kim Jemaine, Virginia director for Advanced Energy United, isn’t confident that Youngkin has the will or the wherewithal to catch up with other states in the Southeast.

Her organization represents businesses intent on accelerating a clean energy transition.

In her eyes, the governor has spent too much time undermining the Virginia Clean Economy Act and promoting far-off energy sources such as small modular nuclear reactors.

“By touting an all-of-the-above policy, he’s missing research and development and manufacturing opportunities in other investment spaces,” Jemaine said. “What about batteries and long-term storage? There’s a ton of untapped potential there.”

She’s also worried that some of the initial excitement about transforming the Hampton Roads region into an offshore wind hub has fizzled since Youngkin took office in 2022. That political landscape means it’s easier for existing companies to expand than for new ones to move in.

With so much ground to make up, Amittay agreed, waiting around isn’t an option.

“We all know that the best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago, but the next best time is today. It’s time for Virginia to think about how it can plant some trees.”

Share This Article
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *