News is that Siemens is looking to sell off its fuel cell division here in Pittsburgh. It is actually part of a very large reorganization at the multinational firm involving over 17,000 job cuts. It may not be the end of the fuel cell work here, but it’s a quiet turning point for a story that was once pretty big here.
Westinghouse’s power division was bought by Siemens and would remain here in Pittsburgbe part of a division at Siemens actually named Siemens-Westinghouse until recently. One of their major projects was an attempt to commercialize fuel cell production. Their focus product was not a fuel cell for cars, but a larger product that could be used for small co-generation applications and other stationary applications.
They put a lot of money into the project and the site selection for where to put the manufacturing facility was highly sought after both nationally and within the region. So highly valued it was that no less than Ross Perot worked hard to put incentives on the table that would have enticed Siemens to build the plant in Texas. In the end they decided to keep the plant here in the region. Why? Talking to some of the folks involved, the reason was mostly a workforce issue. This was a highly specialized technology to get off the ground and the Siemens (formerly Westinghouse) workforce was likely one that was not going to relocate en mass down to Texas. So even with much greater financial incentives on the table, they chose to build there plant here. Where here? That was a regionalism debate unto itself. The final sites they considered included locations in Armstrong and Allegheny counties. When they chose a site at the Waterfront Complex in Munhall, there was a lot of consternation between county commissioners that the site had been stolen from Armstrong County.
In the end, plant would not be completed to production stage. Fuel cells work for sure, but I believe they could never get the engineering to work to make a product that was commercially viable cost-wise. The building destined to be the manufacturing plant would be empty for years and has since been bought to become a research operation for US Steel.
So this one project entailed some of the core issues of regional competitiveness, site selection, regionalism and technology commercialization. Maybe the story isn’t over.