In a location where steel fabricators built materials for LSTs — the ships that delivered troops and tanks to distant shores to win World War II — local steel is once again proving its mettle.
This time, it’s being used to create components for the solar industry — which will combat climate change, increase energy independence and bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas. Pittsburgh’s BCI Steel Co. is partnering with global solar company Nextracker to create “solar trackers” — the metal assemblies that allow utility-scale solar arrays to constantly shift to face the sun as it moves through the sky.
“Essentially, it tracks the sun in real-time,” says Josh Beck, chief investment officer at BCI. “so it produces significantly more energy by positioning the modules in real-time as the sun is traversing the sky.” Solar trackers can enhance solar energy output by 20 to 30%, according to Nextracker, which is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It’s all being done in a long-shuttered Bethlehem Steel manufacturing factory in Leetsdale, Beaver County, where an array of business and government leaders — including U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm and Senator Bob Casey — convened Tuesday morning to announce the project.
The project will create 40 jobs in phase 1, 70 in phase 2 and upwards of 120 jobs in phase 3, according to Beck. The three phases will take three years total, and cost “in the tens of millions.”
“We’re paying all above prevailing wage here,” notes Beck.
“This is an exceptional example of investment at the intersection of southwestern Pennsylvania’s legacy — and future — in manufacturing and energy,” says Pittsburgh Regional Alliance President Mark Anthony Thomas.
“It’s a huge win to have Nextracker, in partnership with BCI Steel Co., select the Pittsburgh region. Our long-standing capacity and expertise in steel fabrication will be pivotal to advancing Nextracker’s large-scale solar projects.”
Leetsdale-based BCI is a big player in the solar industry, even if it isn’t well-known in Pittsburgh.
“BCI is an international manufacturer with operations in 12 different countries,” says Beck. “And we have been kind of the bedrock of the mechanical steel production, or manufacturing network, for the utility-scale solar industry.”
Covid and the resultant disruptions have made a lot of companies rethink the value of global supply chains, and BCI knows where steel-forming expertise can be found in great quantities: here.
“We’re really excited about this onshoring story that we have,” says Beck. “Essentially, with Covid, we’ve done this evaluation. Supply chain insecurities, shipping logistics nightmares and just the cost of trying to get on a boat or find a 40-foot container were just making it really hard on our utility-scale customers here in the U.S. They said, ‘You know, I can’t afford for a boat to get stuck in Los Angeles Harbor for four months.’”
So now BCI will have regional manufacturing hubs in Leetsdale and Corpus Christi, Texas. The Leetsdale plant will incorporate both BCI’s new and reshored equipment shipped to the U.S. from factories in Malaysia and Brazil. Solar tracker products produced at the factory will serve rapidly growing solar markets in Pennsylvania, Indiana, New York and Ohio.
“BCI Steel’s Pittsburgh factory enables the quick-ship response times we need to meet booming demand from our customers in the mid-Atlantic and heartland regions,” says Nextracker CEO Dan Shugar. “This investment will increase the resilience of the U.S. solar supply chain and bring manufacturing jobs, equipment and capacity back to America.”
The company can buy raw materials from U.S. Steel, which is only 20 miles away, consolidating the supply chain to “a very small footprint in eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania,” notes Beck.
BCI Steel has found success without promoting its own brand much, which is unusual.
“It’s very much by design that most people haven’t heard of us, because we found our recipe for success is to give away the credit and just build our company by doing good work for others,” says Beck.
Solar is on a massively expansive trajectory, even here.
“There are over 20 active projects going on in Pennsylvania alone,” says Beck. “And Pennsylvania is still a small solar state.”