Our Views: Clean Tech Opportunities Offer Path to Economic Development


Many community residents and leaders were rightfully delighted by this week’s announcement by the Economic Alliance of Lewis County that a potential $600 million investment is giving serious consideration to the Centralia area.

Though details will have to await a planned May 12 announcement, Alliance Executive Director Richard DeBolt told the Centralia City Council on Tuesday night that it would come through channels related to the hydrogen fueling initiatives that are now rolling in Lewis County.

DeBolt said the development could mean a 17% reduction in taxes for Centralia residents and, just as important, high-skilled jobs that could lessen the blow from TransAlta’s planned end to its coal-fired operations.

While all in attendance expressed appreciation and excitement for the coming investment, not everyone was excited.

Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock roundly criticized the proposal in a meeting Wednesday listing many objections.  Asking questions of any new proposal is fair and right. It is important for both business and community leaders to obtain as much information as possible prior to making decisions or statements that could impact future growth and development in our community. But Pollock is prematurely jumping in headfirst prior to having enough information to make an informed decision. 

We expect better from a person of her intelligence in a position of importance to the public.

Now’s a great time for residents to familiarize themselves with the world of hydrogen power and local efforts to leverage it for economic growth and prosperity here in Lewis County.

Imagine a clean energy epicenter, strategically located between the Pacific Northwest regional population centers of Seattle and Portland; a thriving community of clean energy production, manufacturing, research and development, education and employment. Everyday operations from driving vehicles to heating homes will be done with clean, renewable energy — all produced locally and sustainably. This beautiful, heavily forested area will be a haven for the greatest minds and most innovative companies who are working tirelessly to move our national and international dependence away from traditional fuels and rare earth conflict materials and toward a more sustainable, more vital energy economy.

It may seem extraordinary, but this evolution is already underway right here in Lewis County.

Our transitional coal community has seen a great deal of economic upheaval. High unemployment has been an ongoing issue, with the county seeing a 13.3% unemployment

rate in 2009, a low of 6.2% in 2019 and a high of 16.6% in 2020. Perhaps more importantly, Lewis County is chronically underemployed. The average annual wage was $44,692 in 2019, well below the Washington State average of $69,615. As of the 2019 U.S. Census, 12.2% of Lewis County residents were living in poverty. In contrast, only 9.8% of Washington state residents were similarly affected. The economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated this situation.

This is a particularly crucial juncture. Living wage jobs — and a new economic identity — are desperately needed to realize a more prosperous future.

The green hydrogen market is expected to experience a 50-fold expansion over the next five years alone. If we move quickly and strategically, our community can leverage this growth into a sustainable, manageable and profitable economic recovery scenario. Just as Heavenn, Netherlands, created a sustainable, zero-emission, hydrogen valley model, Lewis County can realize economic recovery and vitality through the adoption and promotion of hydrogen and other clean energy technologies. This is the moment. We must seize the tremendous opportunity before us by attracting and supporting clean energy business, industry, research and development.

Twin Transit and the Port of Chehalis are currently constructing the first hydrogen fueling station in the Pacific Northwest, funded by a $2.55 million legislative appropriation. This station will be the first in an expanding network of hydrogen fueling stations and electrolyzers throughout Washington state. This clean energy distribution system will provide energy independence, reduce emissions and stimulate economic development — and it all begins here, in Lewis County. Our region is ideally positioned, thanks to inexpensive electrical power, access to an abundance of clean water and direct infrastructure connections to rail, truck and plane. And this is just the beginning.

This effort is part of a much larger, overarching strategy created in partnership with the Economic Alliance of Lewis County and the Lewis County Energy Innovation Coalition — a think tank of businesses, organizations and government agencies dedicated to facilitating clean energy innovation and related business and industry development — which will draw the brightest and most forward-thinking minds in the renewable energy industry here to our community.

By creating a space that gathers and co-locates these individuals, we will cultivate and stimulate critical thinking, innovation and the development of a broad spectrum of energy innovation concepts. In turn, this will attract a host of additional clean energy businesses, manufacturers, researchers and innovators. In time, Lewis County can become an intellectual, technical and developmental asset that will provide the state, the nation and the world with proven research, innovation and strategies to bring our zero-emission goals to fruition.

This may seem like a lofty goal, but hearken back to the 1990s, when companies like Apple, Microsoft, Intel and HP were emerging out of the garages of the creative and the visionary across our nation and coming together to create technology like never before. Renewable energy technologies bring that same excitement, that same desire for excellence. Lewis County can become the Silicon Valley of clean energy, the palate upon which we will paint a new masterpiece of energy independence.

Lewis County is on the cusp of a remarkable transition. Once a small coal community, we now have the opportunity to reimagine and revitalize our identity through the adoption of clean energy technologies. This transition is already underway with renewable energy projects in wind, solar and hydrogen, and momentum from the Lewis County Energy Innovation Coalition.

But we must move quickly to seize the economic opportunity before us. If we do so cohesively and intentionally, we can leverage Lewis County’s clean energy potential into a new — more vibrant — economic future.