Many officials from tribes, governments and other agencies in the greater Lewis County area were triumphant on Friday morning.
They woke up to the news that President Joe Biden announced seven “hydrogen hubs” across the United States as recipients of billions of dollars in grant funding. The Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub, the “PNW H2” will see up to $1 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
According to the PNW H2, recipients of the funding include Puget Sound Energy, Twin Transit, Centralia College and USA Fortescue Future Industries.
“Today, the president put a stake in the ground. $8 billion is a pretty good number. And it’s amazing that it trickles down to Lewis County like it has,” said Joe Clark, executive director of Twin Transit, a public agency with bus lines and other transportation services in Lewis County. “This is transformational.”
Fortescue, an Australian mining company, is the parent of the “Future Industries” incorporation. For about two years, the Economic Alliance of Lewis County has facilitated a relationship between the group and TransAlta as Fortescue eyes construction of a $400-$600 million hydrogen plant in Centralia after the steam plant is fully shuttered.
Thanks to a $2.5 million state appropriation secured by Centralia-based Rep. Peter Abbarno, co-chair of the Legislature’s Hydrogen Caucus, Twin Transit is set to create Washington’s first hydrogen fueling station.
In April, Gov. Jay Inslee joined Chehalis and Cowlitz tribal leaders, representatives from the Oregon and Washington departments of commerce, Centralia Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston, Economic Alliance Director Richard DeBolt, and Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope to celebrate the PNW H2 grant application.
After The Chronicle's Friday press deadline, Inslee was scheduled to host a news conference on the topic with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek and Kent Caputo with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.
Chehalis Tribal Chairman Dustin Klatush, who attended the grant application celebration in April, said the announcement “brings the opportunity for thousands of family wage jobs to the entire community and exciting partnerships that will make this venture successful for all communities in the Northwest.”
Tribal communities, Klatush said, have historically been left out of exciting advancements in energy production technology, adding it is rewarding for the Chehalis Tribe to join discussions with the parties involved.
“The Chehalis Tribe is excited to be a part of the next revolution in energy production,” Klatush said.
Talking about the opportunities for Lewis County on a conference call Friday morning, Clark’s eyes were just barely staying dry.
The night before, he’d witnessed the Centralia School District unveil new plans and technology for an educational program on renewable energy. Clark and many others dream of a Lewis County that offers energy workforce training early on in childhood. Down the line, he hopes these homegrown engineers, mechanics and inventors have the opportunity for family-wage jobs without needing to leave their community.
“I think it’s one of those moments in time that we may never see again. Not in our lifetimes,” Clark said.
He recognized the skepticism by some community members and officials over the hydrogen facility at TransAlta, which Clark said was healthy. He and other players, Clark said, should embrace tough questions and set goals for public engagement.
“It’s good to be skeptical. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But, I don’t think we need to be just creating divisions,” he said. “The discussion needs to be open, but it needs to be done with kindness and compassion and respect. … I say we open the door and let everybody in. That’s what we should do.”
Abbarno, who also joined the conference call Friday morning, was excited at the prospect of Lewis County as a part of the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub for the community’s economic opportunities and the nation’s chances at developing energy independence.
Hydrogen is more “flexible” than electricity for powering vehicles, especially, he said, as something that does not require refueling as often and is less impacted by weather.
Currently, Abbarno said, China manufactures about 80% of the hydrogen fuel in the world, and the work is mostly powered by fossil fuel energy.
“What the United States has an opportunity to do is find some energy independence through hydrogen in, specifically in the Pacific Northwest, generally very clean means,” Abbarno said. “It’s not some silver bullet that solves all the problems, but most certainly is going to help diversify our energy portfolio.”
Abbarno has previously referenced his experience growing up in a Rust Belt city and being familiar with the way energy-economy communities needed to shift in order to survive.
Similarly, the closure of the Centralia Coal Plant has pushed local officials toward the next phase of that property and, in general, industry for the area.
Swope, who represents Centralia on the Lewis County Commission, recalls the plant's closure announcement as a “somber” moment that left “a scar” on the area’s ability to access well-paying jobs.
“Today, we stand at the precipice of a new era. … Here, over 10,000 jobs will sprout and more than $4 million will be sown into worker training at Centralia College, weaving a tapestry of opportunity and sustainability,” Swope wrote in part in a statement sent to The Chronicle Friday morning. “We aren’t merely witnessing a comeback; we’re embarking on a journey where our future intertwines with a clean, prosperous environment and a robust, thriving local economy. In this moment, our community resurrects, birthing a new chapter of prosperity, the dignity of work and environmental stewardship. This is Centralia, reborn and rising anew.”
Look for more coverage on the grant following Friday’s press conference on chronline.com this weekend or in Tuesday’s edition of The Chronicle.