In East Texas, a steel manufacturing company that has long been known for making farm, ranch, and rodeo equipment, is now taking a big step into the solar industry. The move, aided by the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act, is one example of how investments in the clean economy could reignite American manufacturing.
The Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate bill that will invest hundreds of billions of dollars into the clean energy economy, has a particular focus on ramping up American manufacturing and creating jobs, thanks to tax incentives that reward the use of materials made in the U.S. That helps spur business for companies like Priefert Steel, located in Mount Pleasant, Texas.
Recently, Priefert Steel announced it would begin manufacturing equipment for Nevados, which makes solar mounts and trackers—the machinery that automatically orients the solar panels toward the sun throughout the day. Nevados specifically makes all terrain trackers, which allows solar panels to be placed on rough or hilly terrain, without the need to bulldoze or flatten the land.
This isn’t Priefert’s first foray into the solar industry, but it is an expansion, boosted by the IRA. The bill includes tax credits for solar manufacturers that produce equipment like tracking systems, batteries, and solar panels domestically, as well as credits to expand those manufacturing facilities. It also gives bonus tax credits for the production of solar power that uses domestic parts, which helps further boost demand for that manufacturing. The IRA “caused any company that was currently importing [solar parts] to rethink their supply chain, to [think], how can I get it inside the United States?” says Rocky Christenberry, executive vice president of Priefert Steel. “It’s almost like it put the industry on steroids. People just started beating the door down.”
[Photo: courtesy Priefert]
Part of what attracts solar companies to Priefert, Christenberry says, isn’t just that its products are made in America, but that it’s vertically integrated: the company brings in raw coils of steel and produces completed, finished, even painted products. Other, less vertically integrated companies might just turn that raw steel into a tube or sheet, and send that part along to another factory; Priefert does it all in one location. That helps ensure traceability, or the proof of a domestic supply chain.
Pirefert got its start in 1964 with the creation of a cattle headgate, a piece of equipment that allows an animal’s head to pass through while locking the rest of its body in place, and eventually expanded to thousands of farm products. But economic instability in 2008 led Priefert to move into manufacturing beyond its legacy of ranch and rodeo, as a form of risk management. It began manufacturing for the trailers and truck bed business and eventually, around 2017, started pursuing solar. (Priefert began invoicing for solar work in 2019.)
That lines up with when Texas in particular began to see a solar boom: Between December 2016 and December 2017, the net solar power generated by Texas utilities and small-scale facilities rose by more than 107%. Texas continues to be a top producer of renewable energy. (Priefert, of course, makes solar equipment that will be installed in more places than just its home state.)
With a few years of experience in the industry, and now with the IRA-aided expansion of renewables, Priefert has witnessed how the manufacturing landscape has changed, and how it’s being revitalized. “When we initially started pursuing solar, import material was actually our biggest challenge,” Christenberry says. “Others could buy the processed parts and bring them into the country cheaper than we could buy the steel itself.” Tariffs through the Trade Expansion Act began to level the playing field for U.S. manufacturing, and now the perks of the IRA are expanding it.
Priefert is currently adding another tube mill (the machinery that turns steel into pipe and tube) to its roster, and has about 125 employees now dedicated to solar. The company expects to add another 100 in 2024. (It currently has about 950 employees.)
[Photo: courtesy Priefert]
Right now, solar is about a third of Priefert’s overall business, Christenberry estimates. That could grow—though he acknowledges that from a risk standpoint, the company is trying to keep a balance of a few different industries. And despite solar’s success in Texas and beyond, it still faces challenges. Franklin County, just about 20 minutes west of Mount Pleasant, has been fighting proposals for solar development. In August, the state’s attorney general said that counties don’t have the authority to ban the development of solar farms, but the residents’ opposition still speaks to the struggles solar faces for mass adoption, in ways beyond price and manufacturing: some communities become emphatically concerned about what a solar or wind farm would mean for their local landscape, property values, wildlife preservation, and more.
Christenberry understands those viewpoints. But he’s also seeing the benefits solar brings economically: not just direct manufacturing jobs, but the broader boom from from people who install solar fields and so bring their dollars to rural towns. Outside of his facility, he also thinks about the steel mills that are upstream from his work, where it all starts, and the jobs being created there. That industry is coming back, too: U.S. steel production was up in 2023, and is already off to a strong start in 2024.
The clean economy promises to ramp that up even more. Last summer, Christenberry was at a steel conference where conversation centered on what the next few years will look like. Even amid concerns about a recession, “the bright spot they [said] in that whole conference was the energy sector is going to be booming for the next five-plus years,” he says. To Christenberry, the idea of “made-in-America” is a passion, and he hopes Priefert Steel can be an example of what’s to come. “We’re excited to see that American manufacturing is on the comeback.”