The recent New York Times article “California is trying to phase out vehicles using fossil fuels in favor of hydrogen” is a fascinating read. While it didn’t focus specifically on Washington, hydrogen could play a significant role in our state’s clean energy future. Hydrogen is a gas that can be created from a process that uses electricity to separate hydrogen and oxygen molecules in water.

In 2019, the Legislature and governor approved a bill I sponsored, Senate Bill 5588, authorizing public-utility districts to produce and sell “renewable hydrogen,” which is hydrogen created from an emissions-free electricity source. Special thanks to Seattle Sen. Reuven Carlyle and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who each chair powerful committees in the Legislature and helped encourage the bill’s passage along with 32 bipartisan co-sponsors.

As you may know, PUDs successfully operate many hydroelectric dams in our state, producing abundant, reliable, emissions-free power. The opportunity PUDs now have to produce hydrogen provides hydroelectric facilities with a new way to address an ever-increasing challenge. Given the recent expansion of wind and solar generation across Western states, the Pacific Northwest’s electric grid experiences periods of surplus power generation in the spring. During periods of snow melt, hydropower generation is abundant because of high flows in the Columbia River. But wind and solar generation are often strong in the spring as well. Not generating power by spilling excess water through dams can adversely impact fish, but securing buyers for hydropower when supply exceeds demand can be both financially ineffective and challenging. Using surplus electricity to produce hydrogen is an exciting opportunity because it can be environmentally friendly and economically beneficial.

One of my 12th District PUDs, Douglas County PUD, has an interest in using its surplus renewable hydropower to produce renewable hydrogen. The state’s first hydrogen fueling station, thanks to a grant by the Centralia Coal Transition Board, is under development in southwest Washington. Beyond bringing more harmony between the legacy hydropower renewables and the newer non-hydropower renewables, hydrogen production in Washington can serve many purposes. One of its uses is clean fuel for vehicles. Hydrogen-based vehicles, similar to plug-in electrics, produce zero greenhouse gas emissions. Our state should consider how to incentivize use of this clean fuel. Currently, our state provides a 50% sales tax exemption to purchasers of plug-in electric vehicles. I recently partnered with 40th District state Sen. Liz Lovelett to sponsor Senate Bill 5000 to establish an eight-year pilot project to extend to hydrogen vehicles a sales tax benefit similar to plug-in electrics.

We should be very proud of the abundant clean energy produced in our state. As a result of our renewable hydropower and other renewable energy sources, Washington has provided tremendous leadership and innovation on clean energy. Since vehicle emissions are the largest contributor of our state’s greenhouse gas emissions, lawmakers should continue to explore incentive-based clean transportation options for renewable hydrogen. As drivers consider zero-emissions vehicles, they should know hydrogen-based fuel cell vehicles have tremendous potential. Plug-in electric vehicles may not be the most viable option once a large number of drivers make a switch, given the longer recharging times and the upstream costs and environmental considerations of electric infrastructure. Hydrogen can easily be delivered to fueling stations (on hydrogen semitrucks). Hydrogen cars take about five minutes to refuel and generally have a longer range. The case for hydrogen is even stronger when considering hydrogen long-hauling and bus options.

My Senate Bill 5000 provides an incentive-based, clean transportation option for drivers. Promoting zero-emissions hydrogen cars alongside plug-in electrics will help our state be “technology neutral” when offering incentives in transportation. As a longtime proponent of clean energy, I support a variety of options and technology. However, I am most excited about the many beneficial purposes of renewable hydrogen. This is especially so, of course, because it will soon be produced in my home community of North Central Washington, an area of the state with a long and proud history of clean energy and innovation.