Not your grandparents' auto shop

With grants from Ecology, Lewis County is developing an innovative curriculum for tomorrow’s workforce

The future looks green, and Lewis County is all in.

The public transit provider for Lewis County, Lewis County Transit (formerly Twin Transit), and the Centralia and Chehalis school districts are piloting a new curriculum called the Renewable Energy Vehicle and Infrastructure Technician (REVIT) training program.  

REVIT aims to inspire students to pursue secondary educational opportunities and careers in renewable energies. And if the pilot proves successful in Centralia High School this year, it will launch in the Chehalis School District and other interested districts across the state next year, eventually becoming available to schools nationwide. 

New technology requires new training 

Lewis County Transit has begun to transition its nine diesel vehicles to a zero-emission fleet with the help of almost $2 million in Diesel Emission Reduction Act (DERA) grants and a VW settlement grant from Ecology. They already have two electric vehicles, and three buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells will be arriving soon. By 2030, the county aims for its fleet to be entirely zero emissions. 

However, having a cutting-edge fleet is one thing, and maintaining it is another. 

“When these new zero-emissions vehicles break down, we need to make sure we have the workforce to service them,” says Maleah Kuzminsky, community services supervisor and grants manager for Lewis County Transit. “As Joe Clark, our executive director, likes to say, ‘More often than not, it’s a laptop our mechanics are holding, not a wrench.’” 

Electric transit bus on the road

Lewis County Transit electric public bus

That’s where Ecology’s grant program comes in. Through many conversations with regional partners, Ron Stuart, a senior diesel program specialist in the Air Quality Program, realized there was a need for a vocational grant that would support training and education as diesel fleets transition to alternative fuels. Joe Clark seized on the idea and worked with Stuart to develop a pilot program that became the REVIT training program. 

“We’re very focused on the infrastructure needed to convert diesel vehicles to clean energy fleets, but it’s just as important to support the human infrastructure,” says Stuart. “It all starts with education and with people like Joe who have a passion and can see the connections to make a vision reality.”

Not just a class, a career 

At present, the REVIT training program is an elective earth science class for students in grades 8 through 12, with four units, some of which are still in development. Twenty-three students are enrolled in the first phase at Centralia High School. 

Students learn about the health and environmental benefits that come with transitioning away from traditional gas-powered vehicles, as well as how to overcome obstacles. Specifically, students learn about different fuel systems and their impact on the environment, how to design and build more efficient cars that can withstand crash impacts, how to create a transportation infrastructure plan that accounts for different types of transit and fuel types, and how to design a sustainable power system for a particular neighborhood or city. 

Eventually the REVIT curriculum will funnel up to certificate degrees and even prepare students for bachelor’s degrees in clean energy at Centralia College, a close partner on the development of REVIT. And to ensure training is relevant to industry, Lewis County Transit is using an educational model known as Developing a Curriculum (DACUM). This method analyzes jobs and incorporates feedback and suggestions from different industry experts to better understand the knowledge and skills required for various occupations. 

Kuzminsky estimates that at the last DACUM meeting in January, there were at least 25 representatives from global companies, including Toyota of North America, Enapter, Air Liquide, Fortescue, Iwatani, Tacoma Power, Washington State University, and many others. 

The future is here and now 

Lewis County has felt the impact of industries coming and going with the planned shuttering of the TransAlta coal-powered plant, the only commercial coal-fired plant in Washington, located just east of Centralia. However, despite the jobs lost from the plant closure, residents are hopeful that hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs in renewable energy will emerge. This is a real possibility because Centralia is being considered as a site for the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub, one of seven Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs that will produce clean hydrogen energy. 

"Of course, the future is never certain, and that can be scary," says Rebecca Towner, director of finance and human resources at Lewis County Transit. Inspiring young people about a cleaner future is a big reason why the REVIT program began. “We want to know how we can get students excited and knowledgeable about these new energies and technologies that are coming.”

It’s working. Take Pedro Picazo, for example, a Centralia High School student who has won multiple awards for a hydrogen-powered go-kart that he built from scratch. Projects like hydrogen-powered go-karts and tractors are part of the hands-on REVIT curriculum, and the possibility for creative projects like these continues to expand, along with potential new jobs. 

“The demand for jobs is here, and we want to make sure we’re at the forefront of this effort,” says Kuzminsky. “Workforce development is a huge piece of it.” 

Want to learn more? 

Applications for the next round of clean diesel vocational grants will be accepted mid-April to mid-June 2024. Find out more about these and other clean diesel grants.