Saturday, July 12, 2014
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Green power revives defunct battery plant

Clean power saved this battery plant.

Bill Galbreath (left) and James Cribbs (right) prepare lead battery core elements at Axion Power in New Castle. (Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette)
Bill Galbreath (left) and James Cribbs (right) prepare lead battery core elements at Axion Power in New Castle. (Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette)
Bill Galbreath (left) and James Cribbs (right) prepare lead battery core elements at Axion Power in New Castle. (Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette) Gallery: Green power revives defunct battery plant

NEW CASTLE, Pa. - Just outside this town in the western part of the state, famous for its chili dogs and fireworks, a low-rise battery plant sits along a side road named Clover Lane.

To miss it is to miss a back-from-the-dead story, one that Gov. Rendell hopes will inspire a manufacturing revival across Pennsylvania.

With a workforce of 59, Axion Power International is no industrial giant. But its resurrection - from a shuttered lead-acid battery plant to one now turning out lead-carbon batteries for use in electric cars, among other eco-friendly applications - is cited by Rendell and his representatives as evidence of the green economy's transformative powers.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced $2.4 billion in grants to accelerate the manufacture and deployment of the next generation of U.S. batteries and electric cars.

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  • Of that stimulus money, $34.3 million is to go to Georgia-based battery giant Exide Technologies "with Axion Power . . . for the production of advanced lead-acid batteries, using lead-carbon electrodes for micro and mild hybrid applications," according to a White House statement. Axion said it was not sure what portion, if any, of that grant it would receive under a four-year supply agreement it entered into with Exide in April.

    Usually mentioned in the same sound bites as Axion are nine other companies the state considers main players in the green economy, including Gamesa Technology Corp. Inc., one of the world's largest wind-turbine manufacturers, which has a plant in Lower Bucks County, on a former U.S. Steel Corp. site.

    Yet just how significant a manufacturing game-changer the green movement might be in Pennsylvania is uncertain, economic experts say.

    "The scale of the opportunity is uncertain as yet," said Mark Muro, policy chief at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But clearly this is a segment, a potentially large segment, of manufacturing that actually has got possibility."

    That goes for many states, Muro was quick to add.

    "It will require very serious concerted, strategic, iterative work," said Muro, who has advised the Rendell administration on how to make Pennsylvania more competitive. "It's important to know that many, many states are seeing the same opportunity."

    They are chasing the same pool of stimulus dollars to help attract manufacturers, or, if the plants are already in their states, to stay and expand. Experts agree that the green economy's potential impact depends on investment of stimulus dollars as well as government mandates on development and use of alternative and renewable energy.

    But just as critical, they contend, is a commitment in the schools to implementing curriculums that will yield graduates equipped for a new breed of blue-collar jobs.

    Green manufacturing jobs will require a solid aptitude for math and science, largely because they will "utilize technology, computers, intellect," said Mark Basla, vice president of the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, a nonprofit agency that advises manufacturers on staying competitive.

    Green manufacturing will be a mix of blue- and white-collar jobs, Basla said. Judging by the current inventory, workers range from glass cutters and frame assemblers at a plant that makes energy-efficient windows and doors, to doctorate engineers who have figured out how to use a carbon electrode to power a car and store energy created by wind turbines and solar panels.

    Manufacturing still will be "the gateway to the middle class," said Joe Houldin, chief executive officer of the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center. "But it's not for uneducated people anymore."

     

    The way of the world

    Pennsylvania ended 2008 with 644,200 manufacturing jobs, down from 659,100 in 2007 - on the way down from 1.65 million in 1953, its peak year, according to records that go back to 1939.

    The state attributes some of that to a change in coding in the early 1990s. Before then, businesses were classified by product; since then, by the activity in which a company is primarily engaged.

    But there is no disputing the overall trend has been downward. Last year brought the 10th straight year-over-year decline in manufacturing jobs, according to data from Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry.

    The picture was no better for New Jersey, which had 299,000 manufacturing jobs at the end of 2008, down from 311,300 jobs in 2007. That also represented a 10th straight year of decline, according to the state Labor Department.

    With a gubernatorial election in New Jersey in November, the green economy is getting considerable campaign attention. Republican Christopher Christie's platform includes urging companies to manufacture solar panels and wind turbines, and extending them tax credits if they do.

    Gov. Corzine, the Democratic incumbent, is supporting an effort to develop an offshore wind-energy project and a plan that calls for 30 percent of the state's energy to be renewable by 2020.

    In Pennsylvania, Rendell has no campaign worries - he is in the homestretch of his final term. His green-related manufacturing agenda is more about building a legacy.

    Few states are considered better positioned for a manufacturing renaissance.

    Experts in labor and industry cite Pennsylvania's storied industrial history, the work ethic that characterized it, and an abundance of unused and underused industrial space.

    They also cite Rendell, who in six years has been unrelenting when it comes to setting an aggressive green agenda for a state long associated with another hue - rust.

    With considerable prodding of the legislature, Rendell got his Alternative Energy Investment Act passed in July 2008. It provides $650 million in funding and tax credits to spur the development of alternative- and renewable-energy technologies. Rendell has said the money will create more than 11,000 jobs and leverage more than $3.5 billion in private investment.

    That and other energy-independence initiatives make "Pennsylvania perhaps the No. 1 state in green energy jobs east of the Mississippi," he said at a May news conference in Roxborough marking the long-awaited availability of state solar rebates.

    "But we've got to go further," Rendell said.

    Optimism about a green-driven manufacturing resurgence is tempered by concerns that the workforce to support it might not exist.

    "In the old days, in the steel mills and coal mines, we brought muscle," said George Cornelius, Pennsylvania's secretary of community and economic development. "In the new economy . . . what the human brings is his mind much more than his brawn. And that's why it's absolutely critical that we have a much stronger focus . . . on education and technical training."

    With the White House pushing a national commitment to renewable and alternative energy, enhanced workforce-education efforts should not stop at Pennsylvania's borders, said Houldin, of the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center.

    "If there's going to be a national policy related to revitalizing the manufacturing sector," he said, "what has to be a key component . . . is revitalizing the educational sector to support manufacturing."

    Two days after that June interview, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined government, business, labor, and education leaders to launch a national effort to achieve higher levels of math and science learning. Adding his endorsement was Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corp. of New York, a philanthropic group created by industrialist Andrew Carnegie to promote education.

    "The nation's capacity to innovate for economic growth and the ability of American workers to thrive in the global economy depend on a broad foundation of math and science learning," Gregorian said.

    The way ahead

    Just four years ago, the harsh realities of a global economy proved lights-out for the little factory known then as New Castle Battery.

    Unable to match the deep resources of large competitors and the cheap cost of labor abroad, the lead-acid battery plant, one of a rapidly shrinking group of independent battery manufacturers, closed in June 2005, the same year it turned 75.

    Fires once used to melt lead ingots were extinguished; assembly lines, shut down. The employees, who numbered 144 in New Castle Battery's heyday, were out of work with few prospects.

    Some were twice-cursed, having been sent to the unemployment lines in the 1980s, when two Rockwell International plants that made car axles and springs left town.

    A bank was readying the remains of the New Castle Battery factory for auction when an unintended band of rescuers arrived in early 2006.

    They were representatives of a Canadian company called Axion Power, formed in 2003 to develop carbon-related technology. They had come to New Castle Battery to buy equipment at bargain prices and ship it north.

    Instead, they bought the entire factory for less than $800,000 and - thanks to nearly $2 million in assistance from the Rendell administration and building momentum for renewable and alternative energy sources - are giving it a new lease on life.

    That, in turn, made Timothy Holler feel alive again.

    He grew up in New Castle, where Zambelli Fireworks Internationale and Pyrotechnico gave the town bragging rights as the "Fireworks Capital of America" - or so say banners that hang from the streetlights.

    In August 1980, Holler went straight to New Castle Battery after high school. He started as a plate stacker and had risen to vice president of manufacturing when the nonunion plant closed.

    With no prospects for other manufacturing work in the region and a son in college, Holler enrolled in nursing school. He was still there when longtime friend Joe Cole called to tell him that the battery plant was going to reopen and that he, Cole, had been hired as plant manager.

    Holler was skeptical about the viability of making batteries for electric cars and to store power generated by windmills and solar panels. So he stayed in nursing school. But when nursing's "crazy" hours got to him, he called Cole.

    Now, Holler is assistant manager of a plant he thought was gone for good.

    It has a range of production jobs: grid casters, who run the lead pot feeders; stackers, who stock the formed battery plates; pasters, who paste the grids with lead oxide, and line operators, who fill batteries with acid, install covers, and run the welder.

    Most of the jobs pay $25,000 to $30,000, plus health benefits and paid vacation and holidays. Six-figure salaries go to engineers and scientists who, among other things, design electrical circuitry for battery-management systems, work with carbon materials, and develop and oversee testing.

    In the year Rodney Stevens, a former commercial and residential builder, has worked at Axion, he has advanced from laborer to supervisor in the "acid room" - where batteries are filled and charged. And though his pay is "not even half" what he made at his $28-an-hour construction job, he is content to work in a job that is not weather-dependent and "not as insecure and stressful."

    Stevens considers his green work pioneering: "We're laying the foundation for our children to come. Hopefully, the job market will be better for them because of the route we're taking."

    If stimulus funds come through and state support (already about $2 million in grants) continues, Axion chief executive Tom Granville said, "we could easily be talking several hundred" employees.

    At a recent panel discussion at Carnegie-Mellon University, Granville earned rave reviews and the applause of a few hundred who packed a lecture hall for his talk on the "circle of green."

    By that, he was referring to investments in Axion by the state and others that have led to jobs, which have led to the production of recyclable goods that are, in turn, a boost for the environment.

    From such turnarounds as the one at New Castle Battery, Pennsylvanians should be optimistic, within reason, said Cornelius, the state economic-development director.

    "We have to be careful not to generate unrealistic expectations . . . that this is something that's a project that will be done in a year or two and we're going to have all these jobs," he said. "We've got some good successes. Now, you've got to build on it."

    Not that Cornelius wants the state to return to all of its manufacturing past.

    "We had coal miners with black-lung disease; multiple fatalities at a steel plant were just assumed on a yearly basis; we had people who weren't living as long because of the health consequences of some of those industries.

    "Will we return to that? No, and thank God."

     


    Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.

     

    Diane Mastrull Inquirer Staff Writer
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