During its first "Hydrogen Symposium," the Economic Alliance of Lewis County announced on Thursday afternoon it is facilitating a partnership between TransAlta and Fortescue Future Industries (FFI) to potentially bring a hydrogen plant to the Centralia area.
If built, the plant would cost between $400 and $600 million and would be at the Industrial Park at TransAlta (IPAT), according to the Economic Alliance of Lewis County. FFI is an Australian company with headquarters in America seeking to use the fossil fuel infrastructure and workforce to create clean energy called green hydrogen.
“With green hydrogen there is no fossil fuel,” said FFI North America CEO Paul Browning.
Browning said in a news conference before the announcement that every morning he wakes up and aspires to combat climate change.
The parent company of FFI is Fortescue Metals Group, which mines iron ore. It is one of the initiatives of FFI to achieve net zero emissions by the year 2030, which Browning called the “most ambitious (energy goal) in the mining industry.”
Richard DeBolt, executive director of the Economic Alliance, said the company has been searching across the world for the ideal place to start a hydrogen plant from the ground up, and that Centralia has the land, water and economic prospects ideal for such an industry.
Officials on the panel at Thursday's event — which was aptly held at Centralia College’s TransAlta commons — included state Rep. Peter Abbarno, Centralia Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston and Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope. They spoke about their excitement for the possibility of Centralia becoming a "hydrogen hub."
Plus, as the steam plant closes, the skilled laborers from TransAlta may be recruited by FFI.
Browning said the timing of that was perfect because TransAlta will be fully closed in 2025, and the hydrogen plant could be open in 2026.
The Thursday announcement also included mention of a coalition between several big players to receive parts of an $8 billion grant put forth by the federal government to support four to 10 hydrogen plants across the states. The coalition will include Puget Sound Energy, Toyota Motors North America and Kenworth Trucks, among others.
The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is sourced from water by a process called electrolysis, with the only byproduct being oxygen. When used by hydrogen fuel cells, the byproduct is water. Currently, the technology is mainly used in larger engines such as ships and jets.
The FFI plant will bring in about 140 jobs after it is built and around 200 during construction. Executives said the jobs would be standard energy infrastructure construction labor.
DeBolt also touted its potential to decrease property taxes by 12% for property owners of the Centralia School District, saying that TransAlta’s closure brought taxes back up, thereby hurting schools as homeowners were less likely to vote for a levy.
According to previous reporting in The Chronicle, the Lewis County Energy Innovation Coalition — made up of entities such as the Economic Alliance, Twin Transit and the Port of Chehalis — is looking to create a hydrogen valley modeled after the Netherlands’ Heavenn H2. 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 local push toward hydrogen power was apparently attractive to FFI executives, but has drawn the ire of some locals, including Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, who has previously said the customer base for hydrogen in America was not large enough to warrant such an investment.
DeBolt, on the other hand, thinks the project has the potential to attract major economic players to the area.
FFI executives also felt the proposed plant could bring pride to the community. Smith Johnston echoed that, saying she felt Centralia was going to be on the cutting edge of this industry.
Don Daniels, chief strategy officer for FFI, said being good neighbors of Lewis County communities starts by hiring locals.
“So, how are we going to be good neighbors? Your neighbor hopefully is part of the Fortescue Future Industries plant that we’re going to be building,” Daniels said.
Abbarno, who serves on the House Environment and Energy Committee and a workgroup called the Hydrogen Caucus, said hydrogen can offer Washington an alternative energy source during a time where the state is steering away from using fossil fuels and beginning to electrify everything. He said he has “huge concerns about grid reliability” when it comes to using only electric power.
In the last session, he said there were two bills passed bringing hydrogen infrastructure within reach of the state and one amendment to the operating budget authorizing grant money for Washington to become a hydrogen hub. Senate Bill 5910 and House Bill 1812 were both approved by the Environment and Energy Committee. The bills authorized the state to start investigating hydrogen power and streamlined the permitting process for new facilities, such as the hydrogen fueling station in Chehalis, the first in the state, Abbarno said.
During Thursday’s event, Abbarno spoke about growing up in a Rust Belt city and being familiar with the way energy-economy communities needed to shift in order to survive.
“Lewis County has shown a great interest in this,” Abbarno said. “To pivot, where other communities not as flexible as ours may not have the leadership galvanizing around this. … And what better place to have (the event) than Centralia College? I mean, the home of the Trailblazers?”
The final investment decision on a potential plant would be at least two years out.
“Our goal is to make green hydrogen the largest globally-traded commodity,” Browning said. “We have to.”