Alex Baumhardt

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) Officials behind a new $1 billion hydrogen hub in the Northwest are now wading into discussions to shape the project.

Leaders from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations and representatives from the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association, a consortium of private and public entities behind the region’s hydrogen hub, held their first public meeting over Zoom on Monday night.

The meeting came about two weeks after the Biden administration announced it was awarding $7 billion to seven hydrogen hubs across the country, with each receiving $1 billion. The move is part of a nationwide effort to begin producing massive amounts of hydrogen energy to decarbonize hard-to-electrify sectors and cut the country’s climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. The administration has set a goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

The Northwest hub, which includes Oregon, Montana and Washington, is slated to be home to eight “nodes,” where hydrogen is produced, each with “downstream projects” where the hydrogen will be transferred for use nearby or across the region. One facility will be in St. Regis, Montana near the Idaho border, three are slated for Oregon and four for Washington.

In Oregon, one node is likely to be near Portland, one near Boardman and one near Baker City. Jaclyn Perez with the Washington State Department of Commerce said Oregon’s nodes will involve partnerships with the companies NovoHydrogen, Mitsubishi Power, Williams and Portland General Electric, or PGE. The regional hub could spur anywhere from 10,000 to 70,000 jobs, according to officials at the meeting.

The Northwest hub will produce hydrogen entirely from water and electricity, using a process called electrolysis. If the electricity is powered by wind or solar energy, the hydrogen is essentially “green hydrogen” or emissions free.

But questions remain about where the large quantities of water and renewable electricity to fuel the hydrogen production would come from. Officials from the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association and from the Washington commerce department would not provide details about whether the bulk of water or electricity will come from the Columbia River, its tributaries or the rivers’ dams.

Negotiations over Northwest hydrogen production projects began in earnest this week, Perez said, and should be complete in early 2024.

Each facility and the related downstream projects that are approved by hub leaders and the U.S. Department of Energy will have to demonstrate environmental, social and economic benefits for people living around them, officials said at Monday’s meeting.

“We’re dedicated to ensuring the benefits of these hubs flow directly to impacted communities,” said Suzy Baker, head of engagement for the hubs at the federal energy department. “This represents a stark break from the legacy of underinvestment and environmental pollution of past energy infrastructure buildouts.”

The Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub could be home to eight hydrogen production facilities supporting the growth of green fertilizer, fuel and energy storage industries. (Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association)
The Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub could be home to eight hydrogen production facilities supporting the growth of green fertilizer, fuel and energy storage industries. (Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association)

To reach the 2050 goal, the U.S. will need to produce at least 10 million metric tons of clean hydrogen, according to the federal energy agency. The seven hydrogen hubs could eventually produce about one-third of that, and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by about 25 million metric tons each year, equivalent to taking about 5.5 million gas-fueled cars off of roads each year.

The Northwest hub alone is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.65 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of taking more than 366,000 gas-fueled cars off roads each year.

Jobs and investments

According to the federal energy agency, the Northwest hub could produce more than 8,000 temporary construction jobs and more than 300 permanent ones.

Kate McAteer, vice chancellor of academic and student affairs at Washington State University, said Monday she is hopeful the hub will sustain up to 70,000 regional jobs. The university partnered with Washington and Oregon leaders and the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association to go after federal funding for the Northwest hub.

“Our plan is to build a coalition of educational programs and target everything from pre-apprenticeship to apprenticeship to colleges, universities – two-year and four-year programs – to really develop and sustain what we would call an enduring hydrogen workforce,” McAteer said.

Regional hub leaders have identified 200 groups they will possibly work with on their plans along with 28 unions and five regional tribal nations, according to Baker from the federal energy agency. The federal government’s $7 billion investment in the hubs over the next few years could bring in up to $50 billion in investments to local communities, she said.

 Cleaner energy

The primary end uses for green, Northwest hydrogen are likely to be large-scale energy storage facilities, fertilizer production, fuel for heavy duty trucks and gas refineries. The largest demand for hydrogen currently in the U.S. is for refining fossil fuels, treating metals and producing ammonia for fertilizers.

Other potential uses of green Northwest hydrogen could include providing fuel for future hydrogen planes, ships and buses, according to the federal energy department.

Hydrogen power lasts twice as long as gasoline, takes up half as much space and is lighter than a lithium battery. Hydrogen fuel cells don’t require time-consuming charges and can withstand cold weather that can eat up electric battery power.

Baker said the Northwest hub will add to a growing partnership among the U.S., Mexico and Canada to develop a North American hydrogen supply chain and a West Coast Truck Charging and Fueling Corridor along 1,400 miles of Interstate 5. This would improve air quality for people living along the major transit corridors, Baker said. Heavy trucks powered by gas are key sources of nitrous oxide emissions, which are unhealthy to breathe over long periods.

Critics have raised questions about whether the Northwest hub will produce hydrogen energy that’s blended with natural gas and allowed to flow to homes for cooking and heating, which would prop up the natural gas industry. Natural gas is 80% methane, a potent greenhouse gas that many environmentalists say should be phased out.

Chris Green, assistant director of Washington’s Office of Economic Development and Competitiveness, said homes are not likely to use the energy.

“From a policy standpoint, for Washington state, I speak on behalf of our governor and our state, we don’t see hydrogen as a home heating source as the most adequate or appropriate use,” he said.

Green said the hub is focused on emissions reductions not profits.

“The point of this for us is not just to produce as much as you can possibly produce so you can make money off of it,” he said. “I think a more deliberate approach is to make the correct amount of hydrogen that is needed for decarbonization.”