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Hydrogen vehicle support hints at larger policy stance

State lawmakers this session introduced a bill that under its original language would have required new vehicles sold in the state to be electric starting in 2030. That bill, HB 1204, advanced out of the House Transportation Committee after heavy revisions making the goal instead a nonbinding policy objective for the state. While that bill failed to clear the House after the legislative cutoff date, 2SSB 5000 sponsored by Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-12) advanced from the Senate on March 3 and would provide a temporary sales and use tax exemption for new and used hydrogen vehicles.

2SSB 5000 would create a 50 percent sales and use tax exemption starting next year for up to 650 new hydrogen vehicles, while used vehicles would get a 100 percent exemption. The exemptions would expire in June 2029. And although the bill’s scope is considered modest in fiscal terms, its unanimous support on the Senate floor hints at a larger public policy stance regarding the state’s future transportation sector. One of the goals among many state lawmakers is to reduce the state’s transportation emissions, which compose roughly half of all greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted in Washington. While some have pushed for a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS), others such as HB 1204 supporters push for the use of one clean fuel type. However, opponents of the original bill argued that this approach effectively cuts out existing alternative fuels, including hydrogen.

“We are in the strong belief that to meet your carbonization goals for your fleet and your clean air goals it is necessary to have a mix of hybrid electric, battery electric, and fuel cell electric vehicles in the fleet,” Toyota Motor of North America Retail Director of Government Affairs Stani Baker told the House Finance Committee at a March 15 public hearing. “For us, this vehicle, this technology, meets the needs of a number of consumers.”

The state has sought to create infrastructure for electric vehicles throughout Washington to make them more practical to use. However, they lack the range of gasoline cars and require longer to recharge than refueling at a gas station. Baker also noted that many people may not be able to retrofit their homes to recharge their electric vehicles, or they live in multi-family residences.

“We just really are excited for this opportunity to see this incentive be available to provide an important option for electric vehicles,” Baker said.

State lawmakers such as Hawkins believe hydrogen vehicles fill that gap by providing zero-emission energy that is faster to refuel and allows the vehicles to travel farther than electric. However, the lack of infrastructure means that Renton-based PACCAR’s hydrogen-based semi-trucks are sold to buyers in California, where hydrogen refueling stations already exist. There are currently 9,000 hydrogen vehicles in California, 6,500 of which are the Toyota Mirage which was introduced in 2015.

Though there are few if any hydrogen vehicles in Washington, the concept has drawn the interest of the state legislature in prior years. In 2019 the legislature passed HB 2042, known as the Green Transportation Act. Among its provisions were incentives for the development of renewable hydrogen production infrastructure. That same year, the legislature also passed SB 5588 sponsored by Hawkins, which authorized public utility districts to produce and distribute renewable hydrogen.

Douglas County PUD is now poised to open the state’s first hydrogen fueling station for hydrogen vehicles next year. In addition to the HB 2042 incentives, the project was funded by a $1.9 million grant from the Centralia Coal Transition Board as well as $250,000 from the 2020 supplement capital budget.

Testifying during the March 15 public hearing in the House Finance Committee, Douglas County PUD General Manager Gary Ivory told legislators that the refueling facility will allow them to convert excess hydropower generated in the springtime into hydrogen gas for vehicle fuel cells rather than spill water over dams as currently done.

“We hope this will be the first of many hydrogen fueling stations in Washington state,” he said.

2SSB 5000 is not currently scheduled for committee action.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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