Richard DeBolt, the executive director of the Economic Alliance of Lewis County, told the Centralia City Council at its Tuesday night meeting that on May 12, the alliance will be announcing a potential $600 million investment in the local economy.
According to DeBolt, the investment will come through channels related to the hydrogen fueling initiatives that are now rolling in Lewis County.
“We have been working on a group called the Energy Innovation Coalition, the EIC,” DeBolt said during the meeting. “And through that, we did a sprint and we worked with all the stakeholders to find out what kind of energy needs we have in our community, and what kind of growth we could experience and what kind of growth we could attract.”
Those conversations, he said, led to a nexus with hydrogen in relation to initiatives such as the planned hydrogen fueling stations helmed by the Port of Chehalis, in addition to hydrogen revenues that will come from the state.
“One of the most exciting things, though, is to let you know that on May 12 we will be making an announcement about a project that we’ve been working on that is over $600 million invested in our Centralia area. It is going to make a huge difference to our school district. … It should bring down taxes around 17% to all of our school borders in (the) city proper, and we’ll have a large revenue for the county,” DeBolt said.
The excitement of the alliance on the matter, he said, cannot be understated.
“We’re super excited about it. These are high-skilled jobs,” DeBolt said. “The other thing it really does is it helps transition those (workers) who are high-skilled that are at the current TransAlta facility. We’re excited about this announcement, so hold onto your hats.”
Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston was quick to offer warm words of gratitude and validation to DeBolt and his team.
“I want to say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the City of Centralia,” Smith Johnston said. “I have felt for a long time that the Economic Development Council was sub-optimized and not working in conjunction with other partners in our community, and the work you’ve done in the last year to create a true alliance has been tremendous — everything from a $600 million investment in our community to the Fox Theatre to small businesses … It’s job growth and wage growth in our community.”
She also congratulated the alliance on its work in the realm of available, affordable housing.
During Wednesday’s Board of Lewis County Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Lindsey Pollock lambasted the whole affair.
“Information around this development has been relatively hushed but my understanding is it’s going to be a hydrogen-generation facility,” Pollock said. “It will be powered by natural gas and it’s going to require carbon offsets. There are some concerns with this. First of all, the carbon offsets restrict timber harvest that can restrict our timber sales and also increase the cost of building homes (because) that’s where our lumber comes from.”
She said her big issue with the initiative (of which there has been limited information shared) “is that no one builds a $600 million plant without a market for its product.”
“We currently don’t have a large domestic hydrogen market,” she said. “So, where does this product go? Obvious answer there is China. They are currently the number one hydrogen producer and they are rapidly expanding their fuel-cell technology. … I would say this is bad for Lewis County and, quite frankly, bad for America at this point.”
Her solution? Lewis County should “grow our own hydrogen economy through distributed generation” using existing energy structures like the county’s skid-mounted hydrogen generators in addition to solar panels.
“This would preserve our limited base load power. Also, allow for the excess to be converted into hydrogen fuel that can be stored,” she said, adding that the distribution process would grow as the county’s energy capacity grows.
In response to Pollock’s statement, Commissioner Lee Grose said he felt like she did not have all the information.
Commissioner Sean Swope said Pollock’s opinion was not the official stance of the Board of Commissioners.
Swope said he thinks hydrogen “would be a great industry for our area” and that he feels Pollock is incorrect in her assertion.
“I’m sure there’s more details to come so we shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” Swope said.
When The Chronicle asked DeBolt for more details on the investment, he said the announcement on May 12 will be the first time the public will hear about what entity will be making the investment, and that no information on the nature of the project will yet be shared.