Julie Titone HERALDNET
In Snohomish County, climate change is an economic game changer
March 12, 2022
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  • Fires. Floods. Heat waves. Jobs?

    Despite dire downsides, human-caused climate change is giving the local economy a boost. It could become a boom.

    Legacy industries such as wood products and transportation are evolving. Electric aviation is poised for takeoff. Entrepreneurs are launching new energy industries to steer us away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. They aim to do well while doing good.

    Why choose Snohomish County?

    “There’s good commercial space. Snohomish County in general is very business friendly. And it’s easy to get employees to move here,” said Rick Luebbe, CEO of Group14 Technologies. “Back when we had five employees, four of them lived in Snohomish County.”

    Group14 produces materials for batteries that the company contends will revolutionize performance in everything from tiny medical devices to airplanes. Its goal is “the electrification of everything.”

    “Our objective is to be in anything you have that has a battery,” Luebbe said. “I’m most excited about electric vehicles … with radically extended range and charging as fast as filling the tank.”

    The company gets its name from the 14th column of the periodic table, which is topped by two elements it relies on: carbon and silicon. Luebbe expects to have 100 employees by the end of the summer. Its headquarters is an industrial building down the road from the Maltby Cafe in the southeastern part of the county. It plans to build a much larger plant in Moses Lake, with 100 times the capacity.

    Concern about climate change is “a core motivation for everything we do,” Luebbe said. He was founder and CEO of an information technology services company when he decided, “If I’m going to invest this much energy into a startup, it has to be something I feel good about. I was getting into renewable energy before they coined the term ‘clean tech.’ It just felt right being part of that.”

    His career shift ultimately led to the launch of Group14 in 2015.

    Grant Ray, the vice president of Global Market Strategy, also switched gears to work at Group14. He had been working for companies selling automotive technology, both classic and autonomous. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, he was moved by pictures of clear skies over Los Angeles and New Delhi, revealing mountains normally hidden by pollution. Joining a company whose batteries could speed up adoption of electric vehicles seemed a good way to contribute to cleaner skies — and his son’s future.

    The company’s product could enhance daily life, and not just for rich people, Ray said. Imagine not worrying that your phone will need charging. Imagine powered prosthetic limbs.

    As it scales up, Group14 faces plenty of competition in the area for both skilled labor and highly degreed research and development staff. They’re the same kind of workers sought by companies such as TerraPower, Zap Energy and Helion, which have south Everett facilities and a focus on nuclear energy.

    A nuclear future?

    Bellevue-based TerraPower, founded and chaired by Bill Gates, opened a research lab near Boeing in Everett in 2021. The company develops safer nuclear power generation systems that can use nuclear waste as fuel.

    “In addition to energy and climate solutions, we are exploring ways to miniaturize cancer treatments to preserve the healthy tissue near it,” Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s CEO, told The Daily Herald in 2020.

    The company expects to have 100 employees in Everett. Current job postings include radiochemist and lab technician.

    TerraPower focuses on improving the traditional nuclear energy approach of using fission, splitting atoms into two or more smaller ones. That creates radioactive byproducts.

    Zap Energy and Helion are focusing on fusion. That joins two or more lighter atoms into larger ones, without the radioactive waste.

    But fusion is still under development. Perfection of the technology has been called the “holy grail” of clean energy. It produces three to four times the power of fission, which itself is estimated to generate a million times more energy than traditional sources.

    Zap Energy says its product will be “a seriously cheap, compact, scalable fusion reactor with potentially the shortest path to commercially viable fusion and orders of magnitude less capital than traditional approaches.” Zap is ramping up to have 80 employees split between its research labs near Boeing and in Mukilteo. Everett is the likely site of a future manufacturing plant, said Director of Communications Andy Freeberg.

    Helion is already building a manufacturing plant near Paine Field and is moving its headquarters there from Redmond. Its product? “The world’s first fusion generators, enabling a future with unlimited clean electricity.”

    Its generator is based on a plasma accelerator. If you understand that technology, you may be one of the fusion engineers Helion is looking to hire. But it posts a variety of opportunities, including an entry level technician. CEO David Kirtley expects to have 200 employees within two years.

    When Helion was looking around Washington for a manufacturing site, Kirtley said, Snohomish County stood out for its labor pool and machining contractors. “There aren’t many places in the world where there is this confluence of talent.”

    For that, Helion can thank civic leaders who secured federal money to build the county’s first airfield in 1936, naming it for heroic aviator Topliff Olin Paine, with hopes it would spur economic development. The field operated only two years before the military took it over during World War II. Its eventual return to civilian hands cemented Boeing’s 1966 decision to build 747 jetliners next door. Suppliers popped up, like satellites orbiting the world’s largest factory. Snohomish County became a manufacturing hub, one that has had passenger service at Paine Field since 2019. Industries feel the gravitational pull.

    Paul Roberts, Everett’s planning director from 1988 to 2004, credits the creation of a southwest Everett industrial plan for giving business a place to take root. It integrates permitting processes on 4,000 acres. Roberts, who later served on the City Council, is an environmental consultant. He was lead author of Growing the Green Economy in Washington State, which was later cited in a state report.

    Boeing may have set the stage for labor market competitors, but its 30,000 local employees dwarf the combined workforces of the clean energy companies. So far, the aviation giant is not competing in their mission to eliminate carbon. Instead, it is focused on reducing emissions with sustainable aviation fuels, made in part from agricultural waste.

    Many consider electric propulsion of Boeing’s long-distance planes to be a distant prospect. ZeroAvia aims to prove them wrong by replacing conventional engines with hydrogen-electric powertrains suitable for both commuter and long-haul flights. The company has offices in England and California, and in January announced plans to open one at Paine Field, in small part with help from a $350,000 Washington research and development grant.

    The chance to slow climate change is a big incentive for people to join ZeroAvia, according to founder and CEO Val Miftakhov.

    “In recent employee polls at our other locations we found people excited by the mission of the company and of making a real contribution,” he said.

    The company expects to hire 20 Everett employees. It needs design and software engineers, data scientists and machine learning specialists. They will be working, Miftakhov believes, toward “the only holistic, practical solution” to eliminate carbon and other harmful aviation emissions.

    He’s not alone in that conviction. Last year, three companies announced a new Hydrogen Aviation and Test Service Center in Moses Lake. One of those firms, magniX, is also investing in all-electric commuter planes. It landed a state grant to consolidate its Redmond headquarters and an Australian research facility under the roof of a 44,000-square-foot building near Paine Field, where 70 employees produce a propulsion system for a sister company, Eviation.

    Eviation is on the verge of a test flight for its quiet, nine-passenger commuter plane, the Alice. Her sleek good looks were inspired by an iconic Northwest creature. The company website quotes chief designer Konstantin Ziman: “Orca whales cut through the water with efficiency, elegance and speed; I wanted to translate this notion into Alice in the air.”

    Alice will take off 22 miles north of Paine Field, from Eviation’s base at Arlington Municipal Airport. The company has about 120 employees. If you’re a test pilot or aeronautical engineer, they’re looking for you.

    Snohomish County has long been on the commercial aviation map. But some international businesses taking root here advertise positions as being in a city to the south.

    Netherlands-based InFarm grows leafy greens, mushrooms and herbs in an Everett warehouse it calls InFarm Seattle.

    The “growing center” opened in 2019 in partnership with Kroger/QFC, which sells its produce in Seattle supermarkets. It employs 30 people for now. No carbon-spewing tractors or carbon-releasing soil disturbance is involved.

    “InFarm’s farming method requires no chemical pesticides and consumes, on average, 95% less land and 95% less water compared with conventional agriculture, and our produce requires significantly fewer miles to get to consumers,” said spokesperson Janina Baldin.

    “InFarm will do nothing but grow in Everett — pardon the pun,” said Dan Eernissee, Everett’s economic development director.

    InFarm’s growing center is at Riverside, a Port of Everett development.

    Upstream on the Snohomish River, the city has big plans for a 100-acre site northeast of the I-5 and U.S. 2 intersection, where it owns 60 acres used for storage. Formerly River Point, it’s been renamed the Everett Point Industrial Center. When staff discussed its potential, Eernissee suggested a sustainability focus and dubbed it EPIC Green. The name stuck. He envisions a place like Seattle’s South Lake Union, where like-minded businesses work side-by-side.

    “Climate change is real, it’s nasty, it’s affecting all of our lives,” he said. “On the business side, it’s an opportunity for investment.”

    The county’s new “clean economy” workers may not only eat salad from different sources but work and live in buildings made of different materials.

    The Darrington Wood Innovation Center is expected to bring 120 jobs to the mountain town. It won approval of a key federal grant in January, said Tobias Levey of environmental non-profit Forterra. Climate change is the concern driving Forterra’s decision to facilitate the project. The center will produce cross-laminated timber, or CLT. It is stronger than traditional lumber and has two big climate advantages: It can be manufactured by thinning carbon-storing forests, not clearing them. Plus it stores more carbon and potentially lasts longer than standard two-by-fours.

    “CLT is still a use of natural resources, but its place in the carbon supply chain is more efficient than any other building material,” Levey said. “You either burn carbon to make them or they are made themselves of carbon, meaning you’re removing carbon from the ecosystem. Concrete and steel are the former.”

    While CLT is breaking into the residential market, Levey said, it’s most promising for commercial construction.

    Developer Carson Bowlin agrees. In 2021 he moved his home and business, TimberRise, from Seattle to Everett. The company specializes in commercial and apartment buildings. Bowlin seeks opportunities to use CLT and will be looking for staff who are also inspired by sustainability.

    “Regionally sourced materials are the gold standard,” Bowlin said. He expects mass timber and modular construction to ultimately reduce construction costs.

    Meanwhile, the push against climate change is driving job and life changes throughout the county. As Everett Transit goes electric, commuters ride buses that require retrained drivers and mechanics. The northward expansion of light rail will bring in workers, not drivers. Snohomish Public Utility District’s 2021 resource plan mentions climate forecasting and a search for supplemental energy storage options. Perhaps new-gen batteries or mini fusion power plants will enter the utility equation.

    It seems a green economic revolution has begun. As consultant Paul Roberts said, “There’s no going back from decarbonization.”