Washington state appears to be on the brink of a renewable energy revolution, and Lewis County is positioning itself to be on the front lines of one particular energy source.
With a combined $4.45 million in grants secured from the Centralia Coal Transition Board and the state Legislature’s supplemental capital budget, the state’s first hydrogen refueling station is poised to be built in Chehalis sometime within the next year.
Those involved in the project say the ability to offer renewable hydrogen gas locally is expected to open the county up to new economic opportunities and industry while future-proofing transportation locally as the state moves away from vehicles that burn fossil fuels.
The station will likely be located somewhere near the Port of Chehalis, just off Interstate 5 at Exit 74, and will service electric vehicles — both personal and heavy-duty — equipped with hydrogen-powered fuel cells.
“I know some people think it’s ‘The Jetsons,’ but I think the momentum is moving. Washington is the second-leading state in buying electric vehicles, and so we’re poised for this renewable revolution — we really are,” said Twin Transit Executive Director Joe Clark.
Station management is expected to fall under Twin Transit’s jurisdiction initially, Clark said, as the transit authority receives its first two hydrogen fuel cell buses around the time the station opens next fall.
Next week, Twin Transit will also receive its first two electric buses. The agency plans on outfitting its entire fleet with renewable vehicles by 2030.
A fleet of 10 hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai sedans for use by local municipalities and Twin Transit’s hydrogen buses will be among the first to be consistently serviced at the station.
Looking at nearby port land from just outside Twin Transit’s office, Clark said the exciting part about building the station is it could also serve as a research hub for commercial transportation companies.
Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Douglas County PUD, Toyota, the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance, both the Centralia and Chehalis ports, Lewis County Economic Development Initiative and the 20th Legislative District lawmakers have played key roles in getting this project funded and its vision honed.
“It’s a lofty ambition, but it’s amazing what’s coming to fruition already,” Clark said of the process.
The Department of Transportation is also funding research that will culminate in a long-term plan on the use of renewable energy locally that Clark hopes will allow partners to be more strategic in energy investments.
“You know, I see this opportunity in Lewis County to be more than we’ve been before, and to not approach it from ‘Wow, I really wish we could do that,’ but instead approach it from ‘Why not us? Why not now?’ And if this money that we’ve been able to secure leads us down that path, good on us, because it’s going to benefit everybody in Lewis County,” he said.
In March, the Douglas County Public Utility District broke ground on building a renewable hydrogen production facility located on a former apple orchard along the Columbia River.
Douglas will soon be the first county-owned public utility in the state to produce its own hydrogen, thanks to a law passed in 2019 allowing those municipalities to produce renewable natural gas and hydrogen for wholesale or usage.
The 9,750-square-foot facility is expected to be completed around September. It will supply the Chehalis station with fuel until another production facility — possibly another utility or private enterprise — takes root in the Puget Sound area.
“It’s not a new technology for Europe or Asia, but it certainly is for Washington state,” said Gary Ivory, Douglas County PUD general manager.
Hydrogen production could cap out at more than two tons daily when the facility opens in late 2021.
The facility will produce renewable hydrogen through a process called electrolysis, Ivory said, which is a proton-exchange process in which electric currents split water into its two basic components: hydrogen and oxygen.
The energy emitted into the solution is expected to come from the nearby Rocky Reach Hydroelectric Dam, which sits along the Columbia River just north of Wenatchee. From the solution, each cathode attracts either hydrogen or oxygen into reservoirs for storage.
“It is a very simple process,” Ivory told The Chronicle by phone.
Specific contracts haven’t been fleshed out yet for wholesale, Ivory said, but there are other gas suppliers in the area that have shown interest in purchasing from them, with interest in zero-emissions energy increasing.
The facility will open this year initially with a five-megawatt electrolyzer, but will be expandable in the future to allow up to 20 megawatts when demand for the clean energy rises.
“It’s a large garage-looking building that you could probably store four or five semi trucks in. That’s the kind of building it looks like, very industrial,” he said.
To Ivory, the partnerships with their lawmakers, Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Lewis County have been instrumental in assisting them to lead the charge in this alternative fuel.
“We’ve been able to partner with Douglas PUD and Toyota on this project, and the goal really is to stimulate demand for this clean fuel,” said Evan Ramsey, senior director of Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s renewables program, who noted that renewable hydrogen is currently trucked into Washington from Sacramento for use.
“It is a good economic opportunity to be able to buy your fuel, produce and sell your fuel locally … All electricity is local to some degree, and now we can have local fuels,” Ramsey adds.
A vast majority of hydrogen produced — about 95%, according to the federal Department of Energy — is not renewable and is produced primarily through a process that includes burning fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas. Being able to set the foundation to produce a renewable product will keep Douglas ahead in the long run if the state looks at further fuel standards.
Ivory also said they’re looking at further funding through the Legislature, perhaps within a year or two, to build a refueling station in Central Washington as part of a larger vision of a Washington state hydrogen superhighway.
“If we’re moving to a more green transportation package, most certainly we’re going to need the infrastructure to support that,” said state Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, who serves as the assistant ranking minority member on the House Capital Budget Committee.
Democrats in the Legislature made a number of large gains in energy and climate regulation legislation this last session, including a cap-and-trade bill establishing limits on greenhouse gas emissions as well as a bill currently on the governor’s desk that would require all privately owned and light-duty vehicles sold be electric by 2030 pending a road usage charge.
Sen. Brad Hawkins, the Central Washington Republican who sponsored the 2019 bill allowing public utilities to get into the hydrogen business, also got legislation passed this session creating an eight-year pilot sales program that cuts sales tax on the first 650 fuel-cell electric vehicles by 50%.
Whether or not they agree with the Democratic majority’s approach, Local Republican lawmakers see this as an opportunity to make investments in renewable infrastructure locally and prop themselves into an advantageous position.
“There’s a huge push to electrify everything. I’m not sure that’s sustainable,” Abbarno said. “You need to have diversity within energy and within transportation.”
Richard DeBolt, executive director of the Lewis Economic Development Council and former 20th Legislative District lawmaker who initiated the work to fund the station, said this opportunity to offer refueling helps give Lewis County energy independence and could jump-start an “innovation cluster” for energy companies to bring their business here.
“I think there’s a lot of innovation to take place. You can make it from natural gas, you can make it from water, you can make it from fire debris,” DeBolt said. “It does show people that we are looking toward the future.”
DeBolt said he could see industries that manufacture hydrogen motors use the fuel source for certain business practices, or energy suppliers taking up business here as the state’s interest in hydrogen continues to build.
As with other fuel sources, hydrogen has its downsides. Those include, according to the Department of Energy, storage costs, mileage range, efficiency and weight and volume.
There’s also an even larger vision at play: a hydrogen superhighway that connects multiple cities — Chehalis, Yakima, Spokane, Ellensburg, and North Bend, to name a few — in a large circle, Clark said.
That renewable energy transportation corridor, he said, will be aided with the U.S. Highway 12 electrification project that aims to build up charging stations between Lewis and Yakima counties.
“That would allow you to be no more than 100 miles from a hydrogen station anywhere in a state,” Clark said. “It’s the idea that we believe getting ahead of the renewable tsunami is critical for Lewis County economically.”
Clark noted that while it might only be a small amount of time before the state’s next hydrogen station goes online after Chehalis, it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set up Lewis County’s private sector with this service.
“The goal will be to get as many people exposed to the technology as possible,” Ramsey said, adding later: “This is the first step and I think, yes, we’ll eventually be having hydrogen highways.”