Lewis County Energy Coalition Looks to Hydrogen Valleys as Work Ramps Up to Develop Innovation Center


The Lewis County Energy Innovation Coalition got a peek across the pond on Tuesday at how some European communities are reorganizing their economies around hydrogen energy, effectively creating “hydrogen valleys” of industries and new jobs.

As the county steps away from coal with the scheduled closure of TransAlta’s power plant in 2025, community leaders have thrown their weight behind the hydrogen hype train, looking at it as an opportunity to spur innovation and attract high-wage jobs. The idea sparked after word came that Chehalis would be home to the state’s first renewable hydrogen refueling station starting late next year.

On Tuesday, during a remote meeting, Dr. Enrique Troncoso, co-founder of Energy B.V. consulting, presented the Energy Innovation Coalition with success stories of how they’ve developed these valleys. All three examples presented were developed through public-private partnerships.

“The point is to create economies of scale,” Troncoso said over Zoom. “As you know, hydrogen and the hydrogen sector is still embryonic, it’s precommercial. So, what we try to do is create economies of scale to drop the costs at the end of the day.”

A valley, he said, works to address both the “chicken and the egg” problem of supply and demand by growing business sectors, creating jobs and developing local markets around their own ecosystem.

The first valley Troncoso presented was the Orkney Islands concept, located in Scotland. Roughly 21,000 people live on 10 rural islands. Their infrastructure runs solely on 100% clean energy, Troncoso said, using mostly wind and tidal energy.

The incentive for creating their valley was to offset some of the energy their green grid already produced to balance their supply and demand, and also to boost the local economy. The region also uses the production of hydrogen for fuel in other sources for sale.

The price tag to establish the Orkney hydrogen valley was 13.5 million euros, he said, which amounts to about $15.65 million. It took about six years to develop and is expected to finish in 2022.

The Heavenn H2 Valley located in the Northern Netherlands was budgeted at about 100 million euros, or $116 million, and came following development of the Orkney Islands project. This project is much larger in scale.

The area in the Northern Netherlands holds one of the largest natural gas reserves in Europe, Troncoso said, and earthquakes from exploiting the energy sources drove the local governments to make the transition to hydrogen. The region is looking to cease natural gas usage within the next two years.

The third valley Troncoso presented on is located in Mallorca, Spain. This small, Mediterranean island is currently in the process of developing its valley to address job losses from closure of a cement factory, work to decarbonize its sectors and to help stimulate the local economy.

More than 31 European partners are helping to fund this 50 million euro project, or $58 million.

“The deployment of a hydrogen valley entails a degree of complexity and innovation, but we also find there are solutions to address that and to diminish the risk. Technically, there are challenges simply because you are deploying technologies across an entire value chain,” Troncoso said.

Those challenges can include regulatory boundaries, climate issues and even skill competency of a local workforce.

“These projects at the end of the day are going to be managed by the local community, so they need to be trained and they need to be skilled in these technologies. But this can also be a benefit, because this is about creating jobs and skills for those communities,” he said.

That may be a good spot for local colleges to step in.

Monica Brummer, director of the Pacific Northwest Center of Excellence for Clean Energy at Centralia College, was among the attendees. She told The Chronicle after the meeting that she believes hydrogen will have “a lot to offer Lewis County.”

“Renewable hydrogen is coming to our state and will help our efforts to lower carbon emissions, as well as build our economy. This is an exciting time to be involved in our energy industry. You’ll witness many changes during this decade that will include electric vehicles, renewable hydrogen, more wind and solar — and hopefully fusion,” she wrote in an email.

According to the International Energy Agency, the price of hydrogen can vary depending on how it’s produced between 50 cents per kilogram to almost $8 per kilogram. A kilogram of hydrogen is similar in energy production to a gallon of gas, Troncoso said.

But government subsidies could drastically reduce that price, Troncoso said.

“It’s not really (comparative) with gasoline yet, to answer your question. But you go on to the benefits: It’s a green fuel, if it’s green hydrogen from renewables. It’s zero carbon. It depends on the value you want to put to that for your community,” he said.

Speaking to The Chronicle after the meeting, Economic Alliance of Lewis County Director Richard DeBolt said the price tag of investing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into this energy sector locally didn’t phase him, especially given the opportunity to attract high-wage jobs, firms and companies to the area.

“This project would help localize that effort. The investment is scalable to what size hydrogen facility you build and what kind of hydrogen you want to make and how it’s integrated into the whole economics,” he said.

Lewis County is currently examining the gambit of what’s possible, DeBolt said, but they still need to look at what’s feasible for their area and what they could realistically nurture.

According to the Energy Innovation Coalition’s website, the goal is to open up an Energy Innovation Center late next year, alongside its refueling station, to “attract industry, support research facilities and develop local clean energy projects.”

The center, the group hopes, will “yield untold benefits and economic impact.”