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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Ken Dragoon: Renewable hydrogen can provide tech companies with clean backup power

By Ken Dragoon

By Ken Dragoon

Oct. 8 is Hydrogen Day. The U.S. Department of Energy recognizes Hydrogen Day as “an opportunity to celebrate hydrogen and to talk about the role it can play as we transition to a cleaner and more equitable energy future.”

Despite all the recent focus on hydrogen, its increasing role flies under the radar. For example, you may not know that more than 50,000 hydrogen forklifts roam warehouses owned by Amazon, Walmart and others. There are hydrogen aircraft being test flown at Moses Lake and researched at Paine Field near Everett. A hydrogen ferry plying San Francisco Bay was built in Bellingham.

Washington is becoming a national leader in renewable hydrogen, with the nation’s first production facility under construction by Douglas County PUD located in East Wenatchee going online within a year. The region’s first hydrogen fueling station is under development in the Chehalis area, and we have the nation’s first statewide renewable hydrogen strategy.

Hydrogen’s role is rapidly expanding to other areas, and it’s important because hydrogen is a fuel that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases when produced from renewable electricity and water. Microsoft is pioneering another use that could turn out to be crucially important in the fight against climate change right here in Washington state.

Washington state technology companies like Amazon, Microsoft and facilities owned by Google and Meta, all have data centers that currently rely on diesel generators for use as backup power during power outages. However, companies are incorporating corporate policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prompting data centers to look towards renewable energy alternatives like hydrogen. It is estimated there are 600 megawatts of installed diesel generator power at data centers in the Northwest. That’s enough to power half a million homes. By switching to renewable hydrogen, data centers can significantly reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

Powering data centers for several days during outages takes a lot of land that data centers may not have. Additionally, transporting hydrogen by truck can cost as much as producing it in the first place. Pipelines are the lowest cost way to transport hydrogen and create storage capacity away from the data centers. In addition, renewable hydrogen can be stored in pipelines so it’s accessible even when wind and sun aren’t available to generate electricity. The proposed Obsidian Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub aims to provide exactly this solution.

The U.S. government is rapidly investing in decarbonization, driving down the cost of renewable energy. State policy mandates and corporate demand for a reduced carbon footprint are driving the development and use of cleaner energy solutions. The federal bipartisan infrastructure law included $8 billion to invest in at least four regional renewable hydrogen hubs. The Biden administration and Congress prioritized hydrogen in part because large-scale renewable hydrogen projects are already underway in European countries and the Unites States is working to catch up.

The Pacific Northwest is home to abundant, affordable renewable energy resources, like solar, wind and hydro. This makes our region ideal for building out the hydrogen infrastructure necessary to meet ambitious state climate targets. This year, more than any other, we have much to celebrate on Hydrogen Day.

Ken Dragoon is the director of hydrogen development at Obsidian Renewables in Lake Oswego, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the energy industry, especially relating to challenges of accommodating variable renewable resources on the grid, and is former executive director of the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance.