Solar employs more than 250,000 people across the country. The industry has added more than 130,000 new jobs in the past five years. Solar installation companies account for the lion’s share of solar jobs. But solar’s growth spills over into other sectors as well. Right here in West Virginia, solar is playing an increasingly important role in the product line of a century-old steel manufacturer.
Steel of West Virginia has been producing steel in Huntington since 1907. Today, the company employs approximately 550 workers to fabricate and finish a range of steel products. This includes structural beams, channels, and guardrails.
The company began manufacturing steel posts for use in very large-scale ground-mounted solar arrays in 2010.
“We roll the material here in Huntington,” said Tim Sizemore, Steel of West Virginia Sales Manager. “We melt it, we roll it, we cut it, we punch it, and we galvanize it. We built an $18 million galvanizing plant in Wurtland, Kentucky, to have all those posts galvanized. It’s all done here in the tri-state area.”
Steel of West Virginia sells its posts to engineering, procurement, and construction companies (EPCs). EPCs are primarily responsible for the design, construction, and commissioning of industrial-scale solar farms. “These companies gather and install all the materials on the solar farm,” Sizemore said. “They grade the farm and landscape it, get it ready, bring our posts in, pound them into the ground, then they mount the solar panels on top and wire them.”
In the eight years since Steel of West Virginia began manufacturing posts for use in solar farms, this aspect of the company’s business has increased significantly. Today, the posts represent between 8 and 10 percent of Steel of West Virginia’s total business volume, according to Sizemore.
“We saw our year-over-year growth double in [the solar] industry until 2016,” Sizemore says. “In 2017 our sales dropped just a little bit, because of questions about whether [Congress would] extend the Energy Investment Tax Credit. People take advantage of those tax credits. I do believe that the tax credits stimulate demand. But the technology for the solar panels is improving so much, it’s driving down the cost per megawatt to put in a solar farm. So, I believe the industry will survive [phase-out of the EITC starting in 2020].”
Sizemore said uncertainty due to the then-pending tariff on imported solar modules and cells also impacted the solar market in 2017. “The very fact of knowing what the tariff is took the uncertainty out of the market,” Sizemore said. “And, yeah, [the tariff will] increase some of the cost of putting in solar farms. But it’s not going to be a showstopper for the industry. And we’re seeing that now. There’s a lot of quotes coming in.”
Sizemore is optimistic about the role of solar in Steel of West Virginia’s future. “It’s been a great growth area, probably one of our biggest growth areas when you look at the industries we serve. We’re always trying to reinvent ourselves and look at markets that are taking off. We’ve been losing volume on the mining industry over the years. And it’s nice to be able to offset those tons with a new industry that’s producing power and have a positive effect on our business right here in West Virginia.”