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Hampton Roads is already in the process of becoming a hub for the offshore wind industry.

Dominion Energy is in the midst of developing a 176-turbine wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach. Another energy company is working to receive permits for another offshore wind farm near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Now, one regional economic development agency is working to make Hampton Roads a home for another piece of the clean energy economy puzzle.

The Hampton Roads Alliance and the cities of Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach, in a partnership with the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, are creating a $6.5 million green energy fuel program to help kick-start a local industry. The project includes plans for three to five transition projects, a demonstration and education site, and a workforce training program.

The program, which is projected to create 230 high-paying jobes, will be located in the Tech Center Research Park near Jefferson Lab in Newport News. Hydrogen and its production have the potential to create more jobs and help attract larger companies to Hampton Roads who need that power output from clean energy, proponents say.

“We can’t have a lack of energy be our Achilles’ heel,” said Brett Malone, Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center president and CEO. “That can’t be the weak link.”

Netflix watchers might remember hydrogen as the alternative fuel a tech entrepreneur played by Edward Norton plans on introducing in the film “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.” The fuel, in a fictionalized crystal form, prompts a massive explosion in the movie’s climax.

The reality of hydrogen use is less dramatic, according to the Environmental Defense Fund nonprofit. The fuel, while flammable and explosive, has been used successfully for decades with the right safety measures and equipment by industry.

The fuel, which can be created using renewable energy, has the potential to be made with zero carbon emissions, Malone said. It has potential applications in heavy industries like shipbuilding, trucking and ports, where it’s hard to operate without using fossil fuels.

Malone noted that hydrogen is not a silver bullet, but one part of a clean energy economy.

“It’s not an end-all be-all for everything,” he said. “We still need other technologies like nuclear and offshore wind and solar.”

The demonstration site project, which includes a nearly $1.5 million GO Virginia grant and an additional $5 million in matching funds, is intended to help existing companies expand while attracting new development to the region, Malone said.

“Existing businesses are hindered,” Malone said. “They are hindered because we don’t have enough energy capacity.”

New businesses, especially larger economic development projects like the Richmond Lego factory announced in 2022, also have nonnegotiable clean energy requirements, Hampton Roads Alliance President and CEO Doug Smith said.

“They’re looking for direct renewable energy,” Doug Smith said.

The project ties in nicely with the region’s burgeoning offshore wind industry, said Matt Smith, the alliance’s director of wind and water technology.

“Offshore wind is creating the renewable electricity that’s needed to create green hydrogen,” he said.

The hydrogen project forecasts 230 jobs will be created in the next five years: a mix of direct positions at the education and demonstration center, jobs added by local energy companies as they add hydrogen capabilities to their offerings, and finally, jobs added by supplier project partners moving into the region, Malone said.

The project could be just the beginning of economic growth in the sector. Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., are hoping to receive part of $8 billion in regional hydrogen hub funding from the Department of Energy.

Stakeholders say the plan, called the Mid-Atlantic Hydrogen Hub, would add 9,000 new jobs, generate $1.7 billion in economic activity and create $490 million in state and federal tax revenue by 2030.

Funding from the hub would help create two major hydrogen production sites in Hampton Roads, Malone said, with a potential to serve eight to 10 different customers.

Malone said he hopes to have the demonstration and education center operational in about 18 months.

As originally published in The Virginian-Pilot