BCI Steel reopens Leetsdale factory to manufacture solar components

In a place where steelmakers built materials for the LSTs – the ships that delivered troops and tanks to distant shores to win World War II – local steel is once again proving its worth.

This time it’s being used to create components for the solar industry – which will fight climate change, increase energy independence and bring manufacturing jobs overseas. BCI Steel Co. of Pittsburgh is partnering with global solar company Nextracker to create “solar trackers” – the metal assemblies that allow large-scale solar panels to constantly move 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 a lot more power by positioning the modules in real time as the sun crosses the sky.” Solar trackers can improve solar power generation by 20 to 30 percent, according to Nextracker, which is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It all takes place at a former Bethlehem Steel manufacturing plant in Leetsdale, Beaver County, where an array of business and government leaders – including US Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm and Senator Bob Casey – gathered on Tuesday morning to announce the project.

US Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm speaking at the Leetsdale plant. Photo courtesy of Nextracker.

The project will create 40 jobs in phase 1, 70 in phase 2 and more than 120 jobs in phase 3, according to Beck. The three phases will take three years in total and will cost “tens of millions”.

“We pay everything above the going wage here,” notes Beck.

“This is an outstanding example of investment at the intersection of southwestern Pennsylvania’s legacy – and future – in manufacturing and energy,” said Pittsburgh Regional Alliance President Mark Anthony Thomas.

“It’s a huge win that Nextracker, in partnership with BCI Steel Co., is selecting the Pittsburgh area. Our long-standing capability and expertise in steel fabrication will be critical in advancing Nextracker’s large-scale solar projects.

Photo courtesy of BCI Steel Co.

BCI, based in Leetsdale, is a major player in the solar industry, although it is not well known in Pittsburgh.

“BCI is an international manufacturer with operations in 12 different countries,” says Beck. “And we’ve kind of been the foundation of the mechanical steel production, or the manufacturing network, for the large-scale solar industry.”

Covid and the resulting disruptions have caused many companies to rethink the value of global supply chains, and BCI knows where to find high volume steel forming expertise: here.

“We’re really excited about this offshoring story that we have,” says Beck. “Essentially, with Covid, we made that assessment. Supply chain insecurities, shipping logistics nightmares, and the sheer cost of trying to get on a ship or find a 40ft container made it very difficult for our large-scale customers here at United States. They said, “You know, I can’t afford a boat to be stuck in the Port of Los Angeles for four months.”

Photo courtesy of BCI Steel Co.

So now BCI will have regional manufacturing centers in Leetsdale and Corpus Christi, Texas. The Leetsdale plant will incorporate both new and relocated BCI equipment shipped to the United States from plants in Malaysia and Brazil. Solar tracking products produced at the plant will serve the rapidly growing solar markets in Pennsylvania, Indiana, New York and Ohio.

“BCI Steel’s Pittsburgh plant enables the fast response times we need to meet the growing demand from our customers in the Mid-Atlantic and Central regions,” said Dan Shugar, CEO of Nextracker. “This investment will increase the resilience of the U.S. solar supply chain and bring jobs, equipment, and manufacturing capacity back to America.”

The company can buy raw materials from US Steel, which is only 20 miles away, consolidating the supply chain on “a very small footprint in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania,” Beck notes.

Photo courtesy of Nextracker.

BCI Steel achieved success without promoting its own brand much, which is unusual.

“Most people haven’t heard of us by design, because we’ve found that our recipe for success is to give credit and build our business 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,” Beck says. “And Pennsylvania is still a small solar state.”

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