|The audacious plan of Hiroshi Morihara|
Slash left behind after a timber harvest can be made into fuel using HM3’s process.
Agricultural residues such as straw left over from the wheat harvest can be torrefied.
Urban wood waste is another plant-based product that can be torrefied.
Convincing teenagers to wake up at 5 in the morning to go running is one thing. Taking business away from the coal industry by pioneering a new technology is quite another.
Morihara has identified four major utilities in the U.S. as potential customers: PGE, TransAlta (which runs a coal plant in Centralia, Wash.), PacifiCorp (which runs 26 coal plants in the mountain West) and North Carolina-based Duke Energy. He’s also targeting wood pellet producers from the Southeastern U.S. and utility managers in Japan trying to rebuild after the tsunami of March 11.
The most important of these would-be customers is PGE. Morihara has a confidential agreement with the utility to supply torrefied biomass for test burns and has consulted with executives and technical staff about collaborating on a plant in Boardman. But PGE is considering a variety of options to replace the Boardman plant, and has by no means committed to woody biomass. In fact, the utility has shown more interest thus far in an exotic, highly invasive cane plant called arundo donax, which grows more quickly than trees and could be raised in the agricultural fields of Morrow County.
PGE spokesman Steve Corson says PGE plans to conduct a test burn at the Boardman plant in 2013 using biomass from torrefied arundo donax. Corson says PGE likes arundo donax because it grows so quickly and could thrive right next to the Boardman coal plant, which would lessen the environmental and economic costs of shipping woody biomass from around the state.
But PGE will be hard-pressed to replace the massive amount of coal it burns at Boardman with just arundo donax (which could cause its own problems as a water-sucking weed that is very difficult to eradicate once it spreads). The utility is considering a variety of new energy sources including a new gas plant, a new wind farm, woody biomass from poplar trees processed in Boardman by the ethanol company ZeaChem and wave energy from the Oregon Coast.
“We certainly haven’t made any decisions yet,” Corson says.
Morihara says he is confident that the market for torrefied biomass will only grow stronger once utilities recognize it as a solution to the problems of burning coal. He plans to use his first factory being developed in Prineville to supply test burns at Boardman, and then “build plants like crazy” to keep up with demand as utilities flee coal.
That will require a lot of energy from a man who could have retired years ago. Does Morihara have the energy and will to pull off such an ambitious plan at the age of 73?
“At this stage in my life, age doesn’t mean anything,” he says, smiling. “As long as you are healthy, you have to keep your brain functioning. And this is very stimulating work. What we are doing is on the frontier of science. Nobody has done it before.”