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This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA.

During a visit to Pittsburgh Tuesday, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm described investment in a low-carbon future as a do-or-die proposition.

She was speaking at the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Leetsdale, which built parts for landing crafts during World War II.

“We are in another war,” she said. “Yes, it’s a war in Ukraine, but it’s also a war for our energy security.”

Bethlehem Steel closed its Leetsdale plant in 1978, but local fabricator BCI Steel recently brought the facility back online to produce parts for solar panel installations. Manufacturing workers and executives gathered with elected officials Tuesday to celebrate the reopening of the old factory under its new mission.

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BCI Steel Leetsdale

Located on the Ohio River about 15 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, BCI Steel’s factory is located along a Norfolk Southern rail line. Photo: An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA

“You are conscripted in the war of our lifetimes, which is the war against climate change and the war to be energy independent and secure,” Granholm told them.

BCI Steel is reopening the plant in partnership with California-based Nextracker. It expects to employ 60 full-time workers to produce trackers that help solar panels to stay aimed at the sun. The product can enhance energy output by between 20% and 30%, according to a Nextracker spokesperson.

Granholm said such projects are helping to fuel the rapid growth of the renewable energy sector — while also advancing President Joe Biden’s climate agenda. The president has announced a goal to eliminate carbon pollution from power generation by 2035, and to achieve net-zero emissions across the entire U.S. economy by 2050.

“This is a $23 trillion global opportunity,” Granholm said Tuesday. “You are going to be making it here. You’re going to be stamping it, ‘Made in America.’ We’re going to be using it in America. And you’re going to be able to supply the rest of the world with these products that say, ‘Made in America.’ That’s what the president wants.”

BCI Steel Leetsdale workers.jpg

BCI Steel and Netracker expect to employ 60 people at BCI Steel’s factory in Leetsdale, though they might eventually add more shifts. Photo: An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA

Biden invoked the Defense Production Act earlier this month, in part to accelerate domestic manufacturing of solar panels amid stiff competition from China. His $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, meanwhile, allocated $65 billion to modernize the nation’s power grid. Democrats had hoped to promote additional initiatives in a separate social and environmental package, but that legislation stalled this winter.

Fighting high gas prices

Granholm acknowledged that record-high gas prices have prompted the Biden administration to release 1 million barrels of oil a day from America’s strategic reserve while also encouraging investment in oil and gas extraction. Those moves might appear to contradict the president’s pledge to wean the country off of fossil fuels, but Granholm argued that they could provide necessary short-term relief. Consumer demand for gas remains high, she noted, and Russia’s war in Ukraine has limited the global supply of oil.

“So we’ve got to replace those barrels, and that’s what we’re focused on,” she said. But she added: “At the same time, we’re also focused on diversifying and making sure that we are not in this position anymore, which is why we want to be clean energy independent.”

Clean energy jobs

Alternative energy development has already driven significant job growth in the United States. Granholm’s agency released new data Tuesday that shows the number of solar energy jobs in the country rose by 5.4% between 2020 and 2021, with 17,200 new positions created. That expansion outpaced the 2.8% growth rate in the overall U.S. workforce during the same period.

The number of electric vehicle jobs increased especially quickly, climbing by 26% between 2020 and 2021, according to the study. The hybrid electric vehicle industry experienced 20% growth in employment during the same year.

But during a roundtable discussion with Granholm at the downtown Pittsburgh headquarters of the United Steelworkers union, business executives said they struggle to fill positions in today’s tight labor market.

Joylette Portlock, who leads the economic development nonprofit Sustainable Pittsburgh, said a more diverse pipeline of workers, along with paid training opportunities, could help to alleviate that problem.

“These … firms … are actively looking to find workers and hire people, and the way that they go about doing that is often … through word of mouth within [their known] networks,” she said. “There are a lot of people who don’t have access to those networks or have different networks that are not connected. So that’s a major issue and a barrier.”

She said people from underrepresented groups often don’t view themselves as belonging in energy jobs. But community groups could help to steer them to the sector. “We’re at the cusp of a profound opportunity to really invest in clean energy and create those jobs and those opportunities for folks in the region,” she said.

Pittsburgh has a long history of energy production. Last year, Pennsylvania exported more megawatt-hours of electricity than the rest of the country, according to a study the Allegheny Conference on Community Development released in April. The research shows that per-capita emissions in southwestern Pennsylvania exceed those in the rest of the state and country by as much as 55%.

But academics and industry leaders argue that the region’s dominance in natural gas drilling makes it a prime candidate for one of the hydrogen hubs the Biden Administration plans to establish in locations throughout the country. Hydrogen is an alternative fuel made from natural gas and steam. Some environmental groups argue that it is an inefficient power source, and they note that while it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it still relies on fossil fuels.

solar panels

Nextracker says, by tilting solar panels toward the sun, its product enhances energy output by between 20% and 30%. Photo courtesy of Nextracker.

The production of solar trackers at the old Bethlehem Steel facility in Leetsdale, however, gives the region a greater role in building the nation’s capacity to generate energy carbon-free. BCI Steel and Nextracker will supply utility-scale equipment to large-scale solar power projects.

Nextracker CEO Dan Shugar said the collaboration is part of a larger initiative to boost domestic manufacturing. The solar tracker maker operates plants overseas, and this spring it opened facilities in Texas and Arizona. It chose Pittsburgh as its newest site to serve Midwest markets, where demand for solar energy has increased, Shugar said.

He noted that the global supply chain crisis that coincided with the pandemic also prompted his push to “on-shore” manufacturing.

“We saw a lot of issues with the ports. On-time delivery costs were going up. What we did was, we took that opportunity to say, ‘Well, we’re going to keep our overseas capacity because our overseas markets are growing significantly, but let’s massively scale up our U.S. capacity,’” he said. “We have increased our U.S. capacity by over a factor of ten in the last year.”