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Coal transition: Betting on hydrogen with an energy technology grant

An electric transit bus in a garage.
Jeremy Long
An electric bus Lewis County Transit purchased with the help of grant funds from TransAlta pictured on March 6, 2024.

Joe Clark, who heads Lewis County Transit, thinks hydrogen could be the future of transit, especially here.

The agency got a $1.8 million grant from the fund to install a micro-sized hydrogen electrolyzer, which will use electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

“For longer range, in rural America or rural Washington, where we are today, we have to use hydrogen because the battery electric just won’t get us there,” he said.

Clark just accepted delivery of the first hydrogen-fueled buses in Washington, part of the state’s effort to develop a federal hydrogen hub.

The company has also ordered equipment to build a fueling station where U.S. 12 meets Interstate 5. This point, about halfway between Seattle and Portland, could be a convenient place for trucks to stop and refuel.

Clark sees a hydrogen buildout as a way to attract companies that want to use hydrogen and create cool new opportunities for people here.

Labor leader Bob Guenther hopes a new clean energy economy might also bring job replacements for workers at the closing coal plant.

Machinists, pipefitters, and welders have skills that will translate into hydrogen production.

Hydrogen plants are less people-intensive than coal plants. A proposed project by Fortescue Future Industries, an Australia-based company, would employ an estimated 45 full-time workers.

A man stands next to a grey Ford pickup on a rural road in Washington.
Jeremy Long
Bob Guenther, president of the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Counties Labor Council, gets back into his truck to give a tour of the Industrial Park at TransAlta site on March 6, 2024. Australia-based Fortescue Future Industries is considering the site for a green hydrogen facility.

Guenther, president of the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Central Labor Council, said he expects to see more jobs come from related industries.

One company is “looking at using hydrogen for aircraft fuel, which will be basically a pollution free way to fly jet engines,” Guenther said. “The ancillary jobs that come along with this is going to be tremendous.”

Heavy equipment mechanic Tim Miles is an example of how workers’ skills can transition.

His business contracts with First Mode, which is developing zero-emission mining equipment that is being tested on the old TransAlta mine site–where Miles used to work.

Miles doesn’t know how new industries might fill a void left by TransAlta, but he sees a lot of possibilities.

“Maybe there will be other companies that will say, well, gee, that looks like a great proving grounds and we want to bring our machinery in there,” he said. “It’s still up in the air on that. But it sounds like it has the potential to be at least partly as good as what TransAlta has been.”

Every clean energy project proposed for the Centralia area hasn’t panned out.

Guenther had worked to try to get a solar developer to put panels on some of the reclaimed mine land near the plant, but it was canceled after the company determined it wouldn’t be profitable.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.