Silicon smelter once proposed for Newport being built in Tennessee
Sun., March 19, 2023
A sign opposing a proposed silicon smelter in Pend Oreille County is photographed in March 2018. The smelter project moved to Tennessee, where the company has broken ground with plans to start production in 2024. (BECKY KRAMER)
The largest silicon metal plant outside of China, once proposed for the banks of the Pend Oreille River, is now under construction on the banks of the Mississippi River.
So what happened to the controversial Washington plan to build the $150 million project that would have employed 140 people?
It eventually ran up against a thicket of permitting and zoning issues along with opposition from local residents and environmental groups worried about emissions.
In 2016, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee even declared the project one of statewide significance, which opened the door for special grant funding.
But the Canadian company, now called Sinova Global, moved on from Washington and into the open arms of Lake County, Tennessee.
Sinova CEO Jason Tymko noted several reasons why the factory plans moved across the county during a recent interview.
He is an enthusiastic promoter of his investment projects and has been associated with a variety of business ventures in North America. He was the face of the silicon project in Washington, as he has been in Tennessee.
Sinova held a groundbreaking ceremony in October for its modern silicon metal manufacturing facility on a 148-acre site near Tiptonville, a town with a population of 4,000, in rural Tennessee.
The Lake County industrial park is nearly 350 acres and offers access to the Port of Cates Landing, an inland port on the Mississippi River.
The Sinova plant is expected to create up to 140 jobs and provide refined material serving the rapidly developing renewable energy, energy storage and automotive industries. The company has said there will be hundreds of construction jobs created during the next two years.
Many state and local leaders in Washington had hoped the plant would have been built in Pend Oreille County, among the poorest in the state.
Five years ago, Inslee said: “As a leading innovator in their industry, HiTest (now Sinova) shares our commitment to enabling the great promise of the clean energy economy.”
The state’s excitement stemmed from the promise of silicon metal as a key component of solar panels, computer chips and new technology batteries. Just down the highway, Moses Lake was becoming a hub for processing the silicon metal into renewable energy products.
There also was the pending closure of the Ponderay Newsprint mill in Pend Oreille County. A silicon plant would represent a smart bet on the future to replace the lost jobs and taxes.
Tymko and his partners also are excited about the potential of new battery technology using silicon metal. The developing technology could replace the graphite anode that forms a lot of the bulk and about 15% of the weight of today’s lithium-ion batteries with silicon. Scientists claim this will give battery cells up to 40% increase in energy density while also charging faster.
A Great Britain investor with ties to this new battery technology invested millions in Sinova prior to the launch of construction of the new plant.
Industry sources estimate demand for silicon metal to grow by 9.2% annually to 1.3 million tons in 2026.
“Tennessee is leading the nation with a strong business climate and highly skilled workforce, and our rural communities are no exception,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said at the October groundbreaking for the silicon smelter in Tiptonville.
He said that permits were issued, the Tennessee Valley Authority struck a electricity contract and that state officials are set to make the smelter a success. And he noted that the TVA is building a solar energy farm near the Sinova plant, as if to underscore a green energy future.
Why not Washington?
During a telephone interview, Tymko voiced more critical comments about the industrial development processes he experienced in Washington.
Tymko said the No. 1 obstacle in Washington was not being able to get their property rezoned for industrial use in a timely manner after county officials promised it could be done.
Tennessee has a program that certifies sites for industrial use before the company moves in and has been supplying attractive “Select Tennessee Certified Sites” that are piquing the interest of companies and enticing them to relocate or expand their businesses on those pieces of land.
The site certification assures companies and site selectors that the land has been thoroughly vetted to meet certain environmental standards, offers truck-quality road access and other important criteria.
During the past 10 years, 24 projects have landed on Tennessee Certified Sites, generating 7,494 new jobs and more than $2 billion in capital investment.
“Site selection, in general, is all about reducing risk and reducing time and reducing cost,” said Kirby Lewis, site development director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
“Pend Oreille County couldn’t even get their comprehensive plan updated,” Tymko said. “When we bought the land south of Newport from the Pend Oreille Public Utility District, it was earmarked by the PUD for a gas turbine so we thought it would be fine for us.”
Greg Snow, Pend Oreille County community development director, said the comprehensive plan has taken a long time but said there was a lot of work to do by a consultant the county hired and the planning commission.
Snow said he agreed that without the new plan the conditional-use application process could have been difficult for their project. But he had advised the company that it could start the process but it never responded.
Pend Oreille’s comprehensive plan updates were recently adopted by the county commissioners but environmental groups have indicated they might appeal.
“PacWest and HiTest spent $6 million on preliminary site studies without even getting a zoning change,” Tymko said. “So, the two companies were dissolved and the parent company Sinova took ownership of the land. We stopped other environmental studies.”
Other issues piled up, including higher costs to provide power, roads and rail to what was the undeveloped site south of Newport, he said.
Tymko said BNSF officials told them that upgrading rail lines between Sandpoint and Newport would cost $50 million.
He also didn’t agree with the cost of improving power infrastructure. Tymko said he realizes now that Pend Oreille County didn’t have the power backbone for the large amount of power the project required.
In contrast, Tennessee is helping with the cost of infrastructure improvements, according to company and state officials.
The Pend Oreille utility district pointed out at the time it was looking into providing power to a smelter, that the company was asking for six times the amount of electricity the utility district provides for the rest of the county and to an undeveloped area without commercial infrastructure and service.
The scope of the project changed from a 105 megawatt load to a 210-megawatt load. That doubling would have required different routes and feeds, according to the utility district.
The company was told it would need to pay about $100 million up front.
In Tennessee, TVA spokesperson Scott Fiedler confirmed TVA is paying for a portion of the infrastructure needed by Sinova. The TVA is the largest utility in the country and can absorb some of these initial costs and still offer some of the lowest industrial rates in the nation.
More than half of its power will be generated from renewable sources with that percentage growing rapidly, Fiedler said.
Tymko said they had looked at other sites for the smelter in northeast Washington, such as the former Ponderay Newsprint mill site near Usk and a vacant industrial site in the small town of Addy in Stevens County. Both had major challenges.
As the prospects for building a smelter in Washington faded, the company pivoted to Tennessee.
Even before looking into Washington, HiTest spent months negotiating to build the plant next to its mine in Golden, British Columbia.
Company officials said the combination of higher electricity prices, construction costs and Golden’s remote location made the site in Canada not economically viable.
Sinova owns the land in the certified industrial park in Tennessee, Tymko said.
Tennessee has assisted with all permitting, rail connections, infrastructure and utilities. For these subsidies, Sinova has made commitments for a minimum investment and permanent employment. It is similar to the agreement with Washington, Tymko said.
“It absolutely would have worked in Pend Oreille County,” Tymko said.
During the five years the project was being pursued in Washington, Tymko’s company was under scrutiny from local and national environmental groups concerned about air and water emissions.
The campaign opposed to the smelter organized a visible and effective campaign with demonstrations, advertising, signs and legal action.
Phyllis Kardos, a leader of the RGNEW local environmental group, said they are for “responsible growth” but didn’t feel the smelter project proponents ever demonstrated they were.
“It (the environmental group opposition) was no hindrance,” Tymko said. “We are always concerned about what people say about us but the group had no effect on us, no effect on the state.”
The Kalispel Tribe, which has a reservation only a few miles from where the smelter would have been built, voiced concern about the possible environmental risks.
They also didn’t feel they were getting enough information from the company or state.
Glen Nenema, tribal chairman, wrote to Gov. Inslee: “The Kalispel Tribe took offense to the State of Washington’s recent decision to designate a proposed silicon smelter in Usk as a project of statewide significance.
“Although this facility would be constructed a mere half mile upwind of our reservation, the state announced its designation without ever discussing it with the tribe and without considering the smelter’s potential adverse impacts on our home and people.”
There has been relatively little pushback from environmentalists or residents during the permit process in Tennessee, according to Kardos, who has contacted a handful of concerned residents. A search of the internet shows no comments from Tennessee residents while criticism about the Washington proposal are still numerous.
Tymko declined to rule out another effort at citing a smelter in northeast Washington, but said much would have to change.
Washington wants grant back
Tymko said when asked if his company plans to pay back the $300,000 Washington grant they used to help pay for studies for the project, he said it wasn’t a liability of Sinova.
“It wasn’t because of our lack of effort, I had $6 million that vaporized,” Tymko said.
The agreement they signed with the Pend Oreille County Economic Development Council gave them five years to build or required repayment. That deadline passed last summer.
Tymko said the agreement was with HiTest and PacWest. Since those companies have been dissolved, Tymko said he doesn’t feel his new company, Sinova Global, which now owns the land south of Newport, owes any money.
Chris Green, an assistant director at the Washington state Department of Commerce, stated in an email that the state agency has invoked a “claw back” provision of the agreement and has initiated processes to recover these funds.
Green stated the department has not had direct contact with the company or company representatives for several years.
The raw quartz will come to Tennessee from a mine in Golden, British Columbia, mostly by train.
The company was first attracted to northeast Washington because the Golden mine is 300 miles away. The quarry is fully permitted for over 1 million tons of production of high-purity quartz that can be used in silicon metal production.
“Tennessee is farther, but we have options including rail and barge,” said Dave Tuten, the project manager for Sinova.
So far, they have built sewer systems and large storm water retention ponds. They have lots of equipment on site waiting for the ground to dry out.
The first phase is expected to produce 60,000 tons of high-grade silicon metal that is processed by others for use in manufacturing.
More than half of North America’s demand for silicon metal is met from imports due to a lack of new silicon metal plants. The silicon metal is needed for the growing demand for products that include solar cells for photo voltaic solar panels, semi-conductor components, aluminum used in lightweight aerospace and automotive parts, and next generation batteries and battery anodes.
Tymko said the company plans to benefit from the Biden Administration’s green energy incentives.
A few concerns
Modern silicon production technology is associated with a risk of negative environmental impact due to emissions.
Gases released during silicon smelting in thermal furnaces contain a large amount of fine dust that consists of toxic silicon dioxide.
High-temperature industrial furnaces powered by more than 100 megawatts of electricity will melt enough quartz rock to produce about 60,000 tons of silicon metal per year.
Producing one ton of silicon metal requires about six tons of raw materials that also includes coal and wood chips.
In Pend Oreille County, the concerns about the project came from people who lived close by as well as others who lived along possible trucking or rail routes, many of whom pointed to emissions and issues with other silicon smelters around the world.
One of the concerns among nearby residents was the potential for emissions from the plant to contribute to acid rain.
When speaking to groups in Washington and Idaho, Tymko acknowledged that the plant could contribute to those issues and that it emits pollutants, but pointed to state and federal regulations that need to be followed in order for the plant to operate.
Studies were completed, he said, and they passed Tennessee permit requirements.
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