This article originally appeared on GeekWire and is a part of an Uncommon Thinkers Welcome sponsored thought leadership program.


Progress toward zero carbon emissions isn’t always obvious to the casual observer. But the Seattle area’s evolution into a major cleantech hub comes into focus once you know where to look.

At a proving ground in Centralia, a massive mining truck rolls over the landscape, soon to be retrofitted as a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), which leverages regenerative braking to reduce the diesel engine’s fuel use and carbon emissions by up to 25%. Inspired by LEGO® bricks connecting onto DUPLO® parts, the HEV then “feeds forward” into either a full battery or hydrogen fuel cell-powered EV. The latter’s proof-of-concept vehicle was the world’s first and largest zero-carbon truck with a 300-ton hauling capacity that proved operationally competitive with diesel. The success of the truck’s zero-emissions powertrain helped Seattle startup First Mode attract more than $200 million in funding from an investor arm of global mining company Anglo American.

Meanwhile, in a nondescript former manufacturing building near Seattle’s University Village, a specialized lab enables development of new clean-energy prototypes. Begun as an experiment in 2017, the Washington Clean Energy Testbeds at UW now provide space, cutting-edge equipment, staff support, and training to nearly 800 people at 140 organizations.

“It’s a research and technology space where we bring real-world problems together with great science-based ideas and test their efficacy in real environments, to create breakthroughs faster,” says UW Clean Energy Institute director and chemical engineering professor Daniel Schwartz. “Investors get access to state-of-the-art knowledge and students work on projects with a direct line of sight to carbon [reduction].”

These are just two examples of local cleantech innovation, part of a statewide effort to develop green energy solutions. Washington is already a national leader in cleantech, driven in part by the state’s own zero-carbon 2045 goal.

The state has solid green cred already: One-quarter of all U.S. hydroelectric power comes from the state, which exports twice as much hydropower as it consumes. Washington boasts 1,700 onshore wind turbines, one source of many that help make the state’s current energy supply 73 percent renewable.

The region’s cleantech footprint is growing, thanks to infusion of venture capital, state and federal grants, incubators and mentoring. Since 2013, the state’s clean energy fund has managed over $150 million in cleantech grants.

On September 6, 2023, Nicole Foss tows the first barge of GE Haliade-X Wind Turbine Generator (WTG) through the New Bedford hurricane barrier. Photo courtesy of Vineyard Wind.

Marine industry going green

Cleantech innovation doesn’t stop at the shoreline, either. Aboard specialized tugboats in Puget Sound, crews are learning how to safely transport barges loaded with components of 700-foot-tall wind turbines for Foss Offshore Wind. The training will enable the startup Saltchuk company to serve ocean-based, floating windfarm installation sites in California and on the East Coast.

“We can be part of their offshore wind supply chain and help create renewable-energy maritime jobs,” says Foss Offshore Wind vice president Sloane Perras. “With Seattle’s existing workforce and level of trade skills, we have a strong opportunity to win these contracts.”

Efforts such as Foss Offshore Wind’s are fostered by Washington Maritime Blue, a regional nonprofit strategic alliance and incubator for clean-energy marine innovation. The public/private partnership is a key state resource for capitalizing on the growing global maritime ‘blue economy,’ forecast to double in size by 2030 to $3 trillion. In addition to its ongoing accelerator program, Blue secured 26 marine-career summer internships in King County last year.

Another cleantech-focused regional incubator, Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator, has offered 18 weeks of mentorship, training, and networking to early-stage startups since 2016. The Accelerator is a joint program of the regionwide CleanTech Alliance and Seattle-based clean energy venture fund VertueLab, which has invested $9.5 million in the sector to date.

Local angel investors’ focus on the sector has helped drive growth. Cleantech-focused angel group E8 (formerly Northwest Energy Angels) has committed $60 million to early-stage cleantech companies.

First Mode’s Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) retrofit truck solution under testing conditions at their proving grounds in Centralia, Washington.

Cleantech Set to Grow

Planned cleantech infrastructure expansion should help the sector expand even further. A few of the most notable recent announcements:

  • The Washington Clean Energy Testbeds will double in size with a planned move to a new facility on the west side of the UW Seattle campus.
  • Fusion energy is another local focus: Startup Zap Energy received a $5 million federal grant last year to support commercialization of its fusion device, on top of $160 million previously raised. And in May ’23, Microsoft announced a power-purchase agreement with startup Helion Energy. The commitment will help fund construction in Washington State of what could become the world’s first fusion power plant, with a hoped-for 2028 opening.
  • The Pacific Northwest is one of seven Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs recently designated by the U.S. Dept. of Energy. The partnership with the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association’s proposed PNWH2 Hub could bring up to $1 billion in federal funding over 9 years and create 10,000 good-paying jobs at sites around the region. Organizations that have already applied to participate include Amazon, First Mode, PACCAR, and Puget Sound Energy, with phase 1 set to start up in early ’24.

“PNWH2 is going to spur a whole new level of growth in cleantech that’s going to mean a lot to us as we grow,” says First Mode chief growth and sustainability officer Rhae Adams. The company’s focus on retrofits is unique in heavy industry, enabling mining and rail companies to reduce their carbon footprint now on vehicles that still have 5-15 more years of life left before they’re typically replaced.

Going Green Where People Care

Why has the Seattle area become such a thriving cleantech center? The area’s culture means many local business owners care about their company’s carbon footprint and are actively seeking green solutions, says First Mode’s Adams.

“Everyone here is very mission-driven to solve the climate crisis, the largest problem of our time,” he says.

The spectacular natural assets of Puget Sound also provide a great place to brainstorm. When you feel stuck on a clean-energy problem you’re trying to solve and you’re based in a city with the natural resources Seattle has, what do you do? Go outside.

“We’ll hit a challenging problem at 3 p.m. on a Friday, and decide to go on a hike,” he says. “We’ll come back with better answers from spending that time outdoors.”

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