Recently, Heliene, a Canadian solar manufacturer with a plant in Mountain Iron announced it is expanding again with the addition of 65 jobs on top of the 75 already there.
That’s real progress. It proves that the Iron Range can be part of a green economy and that local and state leaders can pull together to bring green manufacturing jobs to the Northland and if we pull together again, there may be a whole new round of economic development in store for the Iron Range.
You might want to call it “Iron Valley.”
It turns out that iron is central to the developing green economy. Expensive metals like cobalt and nickel get a lot of headlines but in order to make electricity storage economical for everyday people, you really need iron.
For instance, Tesla is increasingly moving away from cobalt and nickel to a lithium-iron-phosphorus battery which will finally allow it to develop its car for the masses. This vehicle is rumored to cost between $19,000 and $25,000 and may be available within the next year or two with 200-250 miles of range. If true, it may well be the car that puts the oil industry on the ropes, for good.
The most important use of iron, however, may be to help the electricity grid move to renewable energy. Wind and solar are the least expensive electricity sources but they are intermittent. The balancing function to keep the grid dependable has largely fallen on natural gas plants but to even have a 50% chance of keeping global warming to less than 1.5 C, we have to stop burning natural gas - now. That is at complete odds with the 250 natural gas plants that are in the pipeline right now across the U.S., including Minnesota Power’s Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC) which will produce 1.7 million tons of CO2 annually. Add in the fugitive emissions of methane due to a leaky distribution system and the climate effect is like releasing 2.72 million tons of CO2 annually.
There has to be a better way and fortunately, Form Energy has developed an iron-air battery specifically priced to displace gas and coal plants. Great River Energy will start with a 1 megawatt iron-air battery near Cambridge, Minnesota next year and a full roll out of Form Energy’s battery system is scheduled for 2025, the year NTEC is scheduled to begin producing greenhouse gases.
Yes, the iron-air battery represents a huge opportunity for the Iron Range. Millions of tons of iron will be needed for iron-air batteries as utility companies jettison plans for polluting power plants. And, of course, local and state leaders need to quickly develop a pitch to Form Energy and snag a factory just like they did with Heliene’s solar factory.
However, right now, you can have an even greater impact. Congress is wrestling with the Build Back Better plan and it appears to contain both the Clean Electricity Payment Plan (CEPP) and Carbon Fee and Dividend (CFD). The CEPP cleans up the electrical grid; CFD addresses the role of carbon in the broader economy while protecting low and middle income families with a monthly dividend. Both will trigger an enormous amount of innovation, like the iron-air battery.
We are on the edge of getting real climate action. Democracy is working! Tell President Biden (whitehouse.gov/contact/), and our U.S. Senators, Tina Smith (202-224-5641) and Amy Klobuchar (202-224-3244) to support strong climate action such as Sen. Smith’s Clean Electricity Payment Plan and the Carbon Fee and Dividend plan of Senators Wyden and Whitehouse.
Dr. Eric Enberg practices family medicine in West Duluth and is group leader for the Duluth Citizens' Climate Lobby (citizensclimatelobby.org). He also is a member of the Duluth Climate and Environment Network.