The New Energy New York (NENY) initiative recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

This grant comes after NENY, a coalition led by Binghamton University to bolster battery production in the Southern Tier, won a total of $113.7 million last year from both New York state and the federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge — named after President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan. The funding’s purpose is to promote job growth and investment in the Southern Tier and help achieve federal climate goals, according to statements from the White House and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

“This funding will power the next generation of workers to get the skills they need to enter the battery industry and connect innovative startups and cutting-edge supply chain companies with the resources they need to help make their home in the Southern Tier,” Schumer’s statement said. “[BU] is leading the charge to bring the battery industry back to America, and this funding will help to strengthen those critical efforts. I will continue to fight to keep this economic engine for BU juiced up to reach its full potential.”

The $1.5 million grant announced by the ARC — a partnership between the federal government and states in the Appalachian region tasked with promoting economic development — is intended to help further develop the battery industry in New York State’s Southern Tier through both the NENY’s workforce training and development program and the distribution of University resources to battery startups, according to Kari Bayait, NENY’s marketing communications manager. New York state is one of 13 federally defined in the Appalachian region.

“The funding from the ARC will help to boost the work and programming within our workforce development and innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives,” Bayait wrote in an email. “This additional funding will allow us to expand our current impact and reach to include development within distressed ARC areas to ultimately lead to high-paying jobs within [research and development] and manufacturing in these areas. Part of this includes rolling out a Technology Development Voucher Program. This will provide financial aid to battery and energy storage startups and small to medium-sized businesses, as well as provide them with access to [BU]’s resources and equipment for R&D.”

Ensuring that good-paying jobs exist in the clean energy industry has been a significant goal of the labor movement nationally as parts of the economy begin to transition away from fossil fuels. The Biden Administration’s report on “building resilient supply chains” and “revitalizing American manufacturing” found that — overwhelmingly — nonunion automotive battery plants pay disproportionately less than the automotive jobs they seek to replace.

“Top-scale unionized workers earn more than $31 per hour in base pay,” the report said. “In contrast, the automotive battery plants that are in existence or are advertising for production workers pay much less than existing powertrain plants, in the range of $17-21 per hour. In addition, some existing or announced [electric vehicle] plants are nonunion. To support a sustainable industry with a skilled and resilient workforce, [automotive equipment manufacturers] should leverage and support existing auto industry employees working in parts of the industry value chain that will see a transition in the coming years. This includes through access to training and retraining support and the opportunity to unionize and collectively bargain.”

While Binghamton does not have a large automotive industry presence, it is attempting to expand its battery industry through initiatives like NENY. iM3NY is a local nonunion commercial and battery manufacturer that is supported by NENY programs and is located on the former IBM campus in Endicott, NY with NENY’s BATTERY-NY manufacturing and development facility. The company plans to further expand into EV battery manufacturing, requesting a $700 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy in February and signing a joint venture with Omega Seiki Mobility — an Indian EV manufacturer.

“NENY, especially if turbocharged as an NSF [grant recipient], could mean an unbeatable support system, and C4V — [iM3NY’s research and development partner] — and iM3NY are excited to be part of this and lead as an active industrial partner,” Shailesh Upreti, iM3NY’s chairman, said in a BingUNews article.

iM3NY did not respond to additional requests for comment.

Last month, this loan program was strengthened with an additional $3.5 billion being available for future DOE battery industry loans with a new priority from the federal government — “creating new, good-paying jobs” where workers are given “a free and fair choice to join, form or assist a union” according to a DOE notice of intent.

The push for building new battery manufacturing infrastructure comes as many autoworkers are on strike across the country. Around 18,600 autoworkers working for the ‘Big Three’ automotive manufacturers — Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — are currently striking for more benefits and higher wages in a new labor contract. Additionally, concerns about any potentially negative effects a national transition away from gasoline-powered vehicles to EVs might have on employed autoworkers are also motivating this latest wave of strikes. EVs generally contain fewer parts than their traditional gasoline-powered counterparts, and they can be built with fewer workers. Shawn Fain, the president of the United Auto Workers — the labor union representing striking workers — demanded that the transition to EVs still ensure that autoworkers have a reliable source of employment.

“The UAW supports and is ready for the transition to a clean auto industry,” Fain said in a statement. “But the EV transition must be a just transition that ensures [automotive] workers have a place in the new economy. Today’s announcement from the [DOE] echoes the UAW’s call for strong labor standards tied to all taxpayer funding that goes to auto and manufacturing companies.”

Nadia Nabeel, a sophomore majoring in economics, and Erica Albert, a senior majoring in environmental studies, are members of Binghamton University’s Citizens’ Climate Lobby. They acknowledged the potential for battery manufacturing to help revive Binghamton’s economy — but warned against what they viewed as a project that could be environmentally detrimental.

“While this will likely have a positive impact on Binghamton’s economy and lithium batteries are a — very imperfect — upcoming source for green energy, these projects need to be done with extreme caution,” Nabeel and Albert wrote in an email. “Lithium battery plants contribute much to soil, water and air pollution wherever they are produced. Since some areas in Binghamton are low-income communities consisting mainly of people of color, it would be extremely unjust if these plants were placed closest to these areas as they historically have been, and this would simply further the cycle of [e]nvironmental [i]njustices.”