hen the Biden administration in October 2023 designated the tri-state Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub (PNWH2) as one of seven regional clean hydrogen hubs to receive $7 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding, it only added ballast — as well as $1 billion — to the business case for clean hydrogen that organizations in Washington state have been making for some time.
For proof, visit the multiple locations in the state operated by UK-based First Mode, a carbon reduction company focused on clean-energy solutions for heavy industry that developed the world’s first integrated battery and hydrogen fuel cell powerplants for heavy-duty trucks. The company has designed and manufactured the powerplants since 2018 in Seattle.
In October 2022, the company established a proving ground to test zero-emission ultra-class haul trucks and associated hydrogen refueling infrastructure at the reclaimed TransAlta Centralia coal mine site, 90 minutes south of the company’s design and engineering team in Seattle.
The repurposing of a coal mine for clean energy innovation may appear poetic or ironic on the surface, but there are more layers of irony to unearth: Many clean energy technologies require massive efforts to mine rare earth minerals and metals from the very same planet that’s provided fossil fuels up to now, and carbon emissions from the mega trucks working at those mines are substantial. First Mode cites a 2021 McKinsey report that says up to 50% of mining’s carbon dioxide emissions come from diesel fuel for heavy equipment.
“We are extremely pleased to leverage our mining legacy in Washington and help innovative companies like First Mode advance mine site hauling as the energy transition unfolds,” said Mickey Dreher, president of TransAlta US, at the 2022 proving grounds announcement. “Given the enormous amounts of metal and mineral extraction that will be required to transition away from fossil fuels, First Mode’s plan for using our Centralia mine site as a proving grounds for haul trucks has the potential to dramatically reduce emissions at mines around the world.”
The project benefits from the heavy-industry expertise Centralia’s workforce (including TransAlta staff) brings to the table.
Group14 has broken ground on a second commercial battery active materials factory in Moses Lake, Washington, to complement its first facility in Woodinville.
Image courtesy of First Mode
“We are incredibly grateful to be working alongside local contractors and trades, including the staff at TransAlta, as we build out the First Mode Proving Grounds,” said Aaron Ison, principal mechanical engineer at First Mode. “The extensive knowledge and experience within the Centralia community are already well established, and our local partnerships will be critical to the success of our current and future work.”
Also critical to the proving grounds has been the support of a $250,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce strategic reserve fund awarded to the Economic Alliance of Lewis County to assist First Mode with design and construction costs for office and workshop space at the site leased from TransAlta.
“The extensive knowledge and experience of the Centralia community, coupled with Washington state’s leadership on clean energy innovation, are key to the success of First Mode’s work,” said First Mode CEO Julian Soles. “We started with retrofitting a diesel engine with a clean energy powerplant in a single haul truck. We are now scaling our capabilities and deployments to move the mining industry another step closer to decarbonization.”
Clean hydrogen is just one piece of the global clean-tech ecosystem that offers tantalizing economic development possibilities. The Clean Jobs America 2023 report from E2 in September 2023 found that clean energy accounted for 40% of all energy jobs in 2022 and one in 30 of all net new jobs in the U.S. Rhodium Group and MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR) recently launched the Clean Investment Monitor (CIM) to quantify the action on the ground across the U.S.
“In the past year, there was $213 billion in new clean investment across the economy,” Rhodium Group and CEEPR announced in September 2023, “a 37% increase from the previous year and a 165% increase from five years ago.” Among the companies whose projects the CIM has tracked in Washington are REC Silicon; Group 14 Technologies ($220 million); Corvus Energy ($30 million); Ostrea Solar ($110 million); Cypress Creek Renewables ($107 million); Twelve (sustainable aviation fuels); Bellwether Housing; Next Renewable Fuels (aviation fuel, $1.5 billion); and McKinley Paper’s Washington Mill ($60 million).
Way Ahead of You
“First Mode is an important member of our growing clean hydrogen ecosystem,” said Washington State Commerce Director Lisa Brown in February, eight months before receiving the big hydrogen hub news in October. Brown chairs the public-private Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association that drove the successful hub proposal.
That coalition’s work started well before the federal government dangled its hydrogen hubs funding carrot.
The Washington State Department of Commerce in 2020 included the newly formed Consortium for Hydrogen and Renewably Generated E-Fuels (CHARGE) in its newly launched Innovation Cluster Acceleration Program (ICAP). That meant early coordination and alignment. “CHARGE mobilized support from Commerce, Washington State University, and its parent organization JCDREAM to complete significant engagement and analysis of the region’s capabilities prior to the hub program’s official DOE launch,” the state commerce department said in January 2023.
“There really isn’t a better place in the world to invest these funds,” added Aaron Feaver, director of CHARGE and JCDREAM. “The Pacific Northwest was well prepared for this opportunity with a commitment to low-carbon fuels and environmental stewardship that is second to none, the availability of cheap, green power and a long-standing commitment to environmental justice and community engagement all matching DOE specific requirements — it’s like we were built for this.”
Building is exactly what’s going on. In July, First Mode announced it would invest in its first manufacturing facility in Seattle. “At scale, the manufacturing facility will produce components to retrofit 36 vehicles with nuGen™ systems annually, the equivalent of removing 25,000 passenger vehicles from the road each year,” the company said. The factory will also validate the company’s manufacturing processes and establish a foundation for expanding First Mode manufacturing capacity near customer locations. The 45,000-sq.-ft. project is supported by an Evergreen Manufacturing Grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce.
Time to Ride the Unicorn
Group14, a global manufacturer and supplier of advanced silicon battery technology, announced in September 2023 it had successfully negotiated its contract for a $100 million Battery Materials Processing and Battery Manufacturing award with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Manufacturing and Energy Supply Chains (MESC). As it happens, the DOE’s program to support advanced battery technologies is also funded with $7 billion. Group14 now has broken ground on a second commercial battery active materials factory in Moses Lake, Washington, to complement its first facility in Woodinville, launched in 2021. The BAM-2 factory will start with 20 GW of battery capacity annually.
Group14 Technologies is one of 87 cleantech unicorns — companies with a valuation of $1 billion or more — that have been formed since 2016, according to Pitchbook. The company had raised $683.4 million as of fall 2023 and was valued at $3 billion.
Between September 2022 and September 2023, Group14 grew its employment base by 125% to more than 225 employees and plans to add another 400 employees as the second factory sparks to life.