It has been exciting to read about the progress Douglas County PUD has been making toward its Wells Hydrogen Project in East Wenatchee and the possibilities of our region accessing federal funds under the Department of Energy’s regional hydrogen hubs initiative. While some people in our state may just be beginning to hear about the potential benefits of renewable hydrogen, local utility officials and I have been proudly pushing the potential benefits of renewable hydrogen for several years.
In 2019, I partnered with Douglas County PUD to sponsor and pass my Senate Bill 5588 to authorize public utility districts to produce and sell renewable hydrogen. Back then, I had to educate myself and my colleagues on renewable hydrogen and how it could benefit us all. In short, hydrogen (H2) is a colorless and odorless gas that can be created from a process that uses electricity to separate hydrogen and oxygen molecules in water. I knew gaining a new “authority” for PUDs to produce and distribute hydrogen wasn’t going to be easy.
I worked closely that year with Douglas County PUD because of their interest in using surplus hydropower to produce hydrogen. After months of hard work by everyone involved and lots of bipartisan support, Senate Bill 5588 eventually passed to allow for the production and sale of PUD “renewable hydrogen,” which is defined as hydrogen created from an emissions-free electricity source. The Governor signed the bill in April 2019. Fast forward a few years and following COVID delays, renewable hydrogen will soon be developed in Douglas County.
Environmental and economic benefits
This new authority will provide our hydroelectric facilities with a new way to address an ever-increasing challenge. With the expansion of wind and solar generation across many western states, the Pacific Northwest’s electric grid experiences periods of surplus power generation in the spring. During springtime snow melt, hydropower generation is abundant because of high flows in the Columbia River. Wind and solar generation are often strong in the spring as well.
Not generating power by spilling excess water through our dams can adversely impact fish, and securing buyers for our hydropower when supply exceeds demand can be financially ineffective and challenging. Using surplus hydropower electricity (renewable hydropower) to produce “renewable hydrogen” is an exciting opportunity because it can be both environmentally and economically beneficial. If power demand is low but water flows are high, the PUD can produce hydrogen rather than just spilling the water and harming fish. Less water spilled means more financial value from the water itself. As owners of the PUDs, anything that benefits a PUD will ultimately help its customers, so it’s a win-win.
Possible uses of clean hydrogen
Renewable hydrogen is a cleaner version than hydrogen produced in most parts of the world because hydropower is a non-emitting electricity source. Hydrogen can serve many purposes, but one of its uses is clean fuel for vehicles. Hydrogen-based vehicles, similar to plug-in electrics, produce zero greenhouse gas emissions. Plug-in electric vehicles, like Teslas, have a huge head start over hydrogen vehicles. It could be that hydrogen as vehicle fuel may be better suited for heavier-duty commercial vehicles, like utility rigs and semi-trucks, but it certainly could have a key role in our future zero-emissions transportation system.
In 2021, two years following the passage of my Senate Bill 5588 for PUD hydrogen, I sponsored and passed Senate Bill 5000 to extend sales tax incentives to hydrogen vehicles similar to existing incentives for plug-in electric vehicles. That same session – continuing the partnership with Douglas PUD and other officials – I sponsored a transportation budget item to fund the state’s first combo fast-charging electric vehicle and hydrogen fueling station. It will soon be located in East Wenatchee.
Future opportunities for local hydrogen
Creating clean fuel from our surplus hydropower and actually fueling vehicles locally will be quite exciting. If the state invests in hydrogen fueling stations at our ports, we’ll be able to haul the world’s best apples from Wenatchee to Seattle on zero-emissions hydrogen semi-trucks, refueling at the port in just five minutes before the return trip. If the west coast continues to build fueling stations along its interstates, we’ll likely be able to travel across multiple states. If the Northwest ultimately becomes a “hydrogen hub,” anything is possible.
Renewable hydrogen has certainly gained incredible interest – locally and nationally – in recent years. The Washington State Legislature is now pursuing clean hydrogen expansion in earnest. We don’t want to brag, but it seems like, once again, the utilities in District 12 are way ahead of the curve on clean energy. This is something to be proud of.
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