OLYMPIA — Which sounds more plausible: an ultra-rare, hydrogen-powered car tooling around the state Capitol parking lot? Or a GOP senator from east of the Cascade Mountains successfully sponsoring a clean-energy bill?
Both of those things happened this week, when Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5588 into law.
Sponsored by Sen. Brad Hawkins of East Wenatchee, the bill authorizes Washington’s public utility districts to generate hydrogen, which then can be used as clean energy.
Unlike the partisan battles Olympia has seen on other clean-energy legislation, the bill received unanimous approval in the Legislature.
The idea came to Hawkins from his former employer, the Douglas County Public Utility District, which generates electricity from hydropower.
At certain times of the year, the district has more water than it can use for that purpose, and wants to use that water to create hydrogen for internal use or for sale.
That would also provide a new component for a clean-energy economy here.
“When we look back, perhaps 10 years from now, we’ll realize that today was a significant step forward,” Hawkins said.
It could take years to build the fueling stations in Washington to make hydrogen vehicles feasible.
But on Wednesday afternoon, a hydrogen-powered car — a Toyota Mirai — was parked near the Capitol, fueling such dreams by lawmakers and Inslee.
The company has sold about 5,000 such cars in California, according to Dave Bora of Toyota North America, Inc. California is the only place where the model is available, he said, because the state has 39 hydrogen fueling stations. Drops of water are the only emissions produced by the car.
Inslee, who signed the bill Wednesday, took a test drive in the car, asked questions about the vehicle and inquired about what it would take to create fueling stations here.
With the new law, Douglas County PUD hopes to create a pilot project to generate hydrogen, according to district spokeswoman Meaghan Vibbert.
The district would acquire an electrolyzer, she said, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. It would use excess water flows from the Wells Dam, on the Columbia River near the town of Pateros, Okanogan County.
“Maybe we get a few hydrogen cars in our fleet and see how that goes,” she said. “See if it’s an efficient model for us.”
The passage of SB 5588 comes as Democratic lawmakers toil to pass their own wide-ranging slate of clean-energy bills.
Inslee — who is running for president with an almost singular focus on fighting climate change — has seen his proposals stall in Olympia in previous years.
At the Washington Legislature, Republican opposition to clean-energy legislation includes concern that policies like this year’s proposed clean-fuels standard and 100 percent renewable powers legislation would raise energy prices.
Many in the GOP also worry about excessive regulations, and some still dispute data showing that the planet is warming.
A federal government climate-change report released last year shows the Pacific Northwest is already seeing damage from rising temperatures, including from more wildfires, droughts and disease outbreaks.
Hawkins said he isn’t a climate-change denier, but would rather see climate change tackled at a national or international level.
“Barring that,” he said, “I think we can always look at ways to promote renewable energy.”