An Australian company is considering a property next to the soon-to-close coal-fired power plant in Centralia, Washington, to build a large hydrogen production facility. Fortescue Future Industries released its plans at a hydrogen symposium Thursday hosted by the Lewis County Economic Alliance.
Fortescue Future Industries is a clean energy subsidiary of Australian-based iron ore mining giant Fortescue Metals Group. The company recently made a series of announcements that paint a picture of grand ambitions to produce “green hydrogen” on a global scale.
Fortescue North America President Paul Browning said the property next to TransAlta’s coal plant caught his company’s attention for several reasons. Among them: soon to be available labour, abundant water rights, rail and electricity connections.
“It’s going to be on the site of an old coal mine,” Browning said in an interview. “So we’re going to turn a place that made the dirtiest fossil fuel into a place that will make the cleanest, greenest fuel – green hydrogen.”
TransAlta’s surface coal mine closed in 2006 and the adjacent power plant, the last operating coal-fired plant in the Pacific Northwest, is scheduled to close in 2025. Browning said the final decision to begin construction of a hydrogen production facility there could take place in 2024 with commissioning in 2026.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” to move the 120 coal-fired plant workers onto the green energy company’s payroll, he told symposium attendees.
Browning said Fortescue would make hydrogen by electrolysis, which involves passing an electric current through water to split liquid molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The power supply source for the proposed plant has not been locked out.
“We’re not at the stage yet where we’re going to make an announcement of our power source, other than to say it’s going to be a renewable power source from this region,” Browning said.
“Green hydrogen” is the nickname used to describe hydrogen produced without any pollution linked to global warming, for example by electrolysis using renewable wind, solar or hydroelectric energies. Most hydrogen on the market today is derived from natural gas through industrial processes that generate significant carbon emissions.
The economic viability of making green hydrogen still has skeptics locally and nationally. Notably, the billionaire CEO of Tesla Elon Musk rejected the technology during an appearance at the Financial Times Future of the Car Summit on Tuesday.
“The efficiency of electrolysis is… mediocre,” he told the Financial Times. “So you really spend a lot of energy to…separate hydrogen and oxygen. Then you have to separate the hydrogen and oxygen and pressurize it – that also takes a lot of energy.
“And if you have to liquefy hydrogen, oh my,” he continued. “The amount of energy required to…produce hydrogen and turn it into liquid is staggering. This is the dumbest thing I can imagine for energy storage.
Fortescue Future Industries has its own billionaire in its corner, its founder and parent company chairman, Andrew Forrest. The iron ore tycoon is optimistic about hydrogen and has become a climate change evangelist, judging by reports in the Australian press.
On Thursday at Centralia, Fortescue representatives said they would market their hydrogen as an environmentally friendly substitute for natural gas in heavy industry and as a transportation fuel. A panel of speakers from Toyota, Kenworth Truck Company, Washington State Department of Commerce, Twin Transit and Puget Sound Energy described possible uses in many industries. They touted hydrogen as the best solution for reducing the climate impacts of long-haul trucking, shipping, transcontinental air travel, and steelmaking, for example, all of which would be impossible to convert to battery power.
“We see a future for blending green hydrogen into our pipelines,” to decarbonize natural gas distribution, said Josh Jacobs, vice president of energy strategy at utility Puget Sound Energy.
The vision of the “hydrogen valley” strengthened
The Australian company’s interest in locating in Lewis County has given a major boost to community leaders’ vision of becoming a hydrogen hub, or “Hydrogen Valley”, as economic development recruiter Richard DeBolt, executive director of the Lewis County Economic Alliance. , Put the.
“We didn’t think the opportunity would come so quickly,” he said.
Centralia Mayor Kelly Smith-Johnston said the new plant could become the centerpiece alongside other elements already underway to achieve the Hydrogen Valley identity. Chehalis-based Twin Transit is set to order four hydrogen fuel cell buses to add to its fleet. Along with other partners, including the Port of Chehalis, they secured state funding to build three hydrogen fueling stations at various locations near Interstate 5.
Fortescue’s Browning said his company would lead a grant application to the U.S. Department of Energy to designate the region as an official “hydrogen hub,” a funding opportunity created in the bipartisan infrastructure package passed by the government. Congress last winter. Browning expressed hope that the Pacific Northwest could earn just over $1 billion on the $8 Billion Regional Clean Hydrogen Centers Program pool, which could partly cover the high price of the installation planned by Fortescue.
“This will allow us to produce hydrogen at a cost competitive with fossil fuels,” Browning said.
The Centralia hydrogen production facility would be the second such facility built in the Northwest if it comes to fruition. In March 2021, Douglas County Public Utility District inaugurated a much smaller renewable hydrogen production plant on the east bank of the Columbia River north of Wenatchee.
Douglas PUD spokeswoman Meaghan Vibbert said a succession of unforeseen issues, including supply chain issues, bids over budget and design changes, challenged and delayed the project. In an email, she said testing and commissioning is now scheduled for May 2023. The facility is designed to use unsold electricity from the PUD dam on the Columbia to make hydrogen for the vehicle fuel and industrial uses.
The utility’s electrolyser has a capacity of 5 megawatts, which can produce two tons of hydrogen per day at full production. Fortescue has not released details on the planned capacity and production volumes of its planned Centralia plant. But corporate signals, supporting infrastructure requirements, and artist renderings point to a massively larger project than Douglas PUD’s electrolyser – potentially up to fifty times larger.
The equipment of the facilities could benefit from a new approval sales tax deferral and exemption for clean energy manufacturing. The Washington Legislature approved the new tax break in March — and a separate bill to streamline permits — after hearing testimony that such policies would attract investment and research development.