Aug. 10—WURTLAND — Congressman Thomas Massie visited the Steel Ventures galvanizing plant Wednesday to learn how the five-year-old facility fits into the growing solar energy sector.
The visit came as the U.S. House Rules Committee starts to look at the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, a Senate Democrat backed bill that would allocate $369 billion into green energy.
The plant, owned by Steel Dynamics, performs finishing work on beams and pieces fabricated primarily at the Steel of West Virginia plant in Huntington. Steel Dynamics, based in Indiana, recently took on the failed Braidy Industries project, but will be moving it somewhere else besides EastPark due to space.
While roughly eight out of 10 tractor trailer undercarriages use I-beams fashioned by Steel of West Virginia, the main bread and butter for the finishing plant are pilings for solar farms — plant manager Jason Rulen said it's roughly 80% of the sales at Steel Ventures.
Employing 200 workers on three shifts, the Steel Ventures plant off U.S. 23 was established in 2017 and has seen $23 million in investment.
The plant coats steel in zinc to make it longer lasting, according to Rulen.
Think of it this way: steel is to regular old lumber as galvanized steel is to the pressure treated stuff.
"It's really, really pressure treated," he said.
The fabricated pieces are shipped down from Huntington (or elsewhere) to the plant, where they are hung on a line like a cow on a meat hook, according to Rulen.
The line cleans grease off the piece, gives it an acid bath, rinses it with water, then throws a treatment on it to prevent it from rusting while awaiting galvanization, Rulen said.
The pieces are dipped into molten zinc, then allowed to dry for five minutes before being sent up the line. The result is a thick protective coating that takes 30 years to finally wear away — no paint required.
"You can't get paint thick enough to provide that much rust protection," Rulen said.
And that protection is what install companies need for massive solar farms, according to Tyler Avery, a procurement manager with Solv Solar. Over the years, Avery said Solv Solar has bought $100 million in galvanized steel pilings from Steel Ventures.
According to Avery, the soil these solar farms are established in can be corrosive, so having pilings that take 30 years to even begin to rust — with a service life of 75 years total — allows for less maintenance than driving straight steel into the ground.
Especially as solar farms are now spreading from the dry and flat western states to the East Coast — anyone with interest in antique cars know the floorboards on a '56 Chevy from Phoenix, Arizona, will be in much better shape than those found in Biloxi, Mississippi, largely due to the moisture.
The pilings have to hold up — Avery said most solar farms use a system where the panels track the sun as it moves across the sky.
Massie, an MIT-trained engineer who has installed solar at his farm, said development over the years have resulted in the cheaper panels, but the storage of electric energy is still a challenge, especially on a large scale.
Avery said storing energy for rainy days and night time is the latest focus in the field.
In terms of renewable energy, Massie said he sees solar as the future in electric production.
"I think solar will do to wind power what natural gas did to coal," Massie said. "I think over time, we can look at areas in this country like here in Appalachia where flat land is in short supply by having these on hillsides."
Massie said he'd use his role on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee to safeguard patent protections on new tech in solar, as well as his role on the transportation committee to support easier shipping for materials.
"Right now, there's too much red tape," Massie said. "Whenever you're in Congress, you find out there's always a battle between two sides. Every year, we have to look at raising the weight limit for trucks. Truckers want it, but rail freight doesn't."
Massie said he's in favor of raising the limit, stating that less trucks on the roads means fewer accidents. He said that in turn would keep shipping costs low for companies like Steel Ventures.
As far as the growth of the green economy is concerned, Massie said he thinks smaller shops like Steel Ventures are on the whole better than large-scale plants employing thousands.
"I'd rather have 12 plants of this size than one big plant, because if you have 12 plants, it can handle changes in direction in the economy easier," he said.