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The audacious plan of Hiroshi Morihara

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Articles - August 2011
Wednesday, July 20, 2011


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.”




Ruth Duemler
0 #1 The Audacious planRuth Duemler 2011-07-29 19:46:40
Nonsense! It is not carbon neutral and the emissions are harmful to breathe! The American Lung Association and the American Heart Association along with thousands of doctors have come out against any form of biomass burning.
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Jack Stone
0 #2 Jack Stone 2011-07-29 20:21:14
The trees are the lungs of our planet. I am sad to hear that instead of encouraging less energy use, greed will push for more energy creation.
The ALA says biomass is dangerous and unhealthy for children. Biomass is a scam and I hope the congress ends subsidies or it.
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Tom Kruzen
0 #3 Torrified woodTom Kruzen 2011-07-30 01:42:18
Much of what is presented in this article is propaganda from and industry that is handsomely supported by sleeping American taxpayers. Burning got us into the climate change business and burning is not the solution. Efficiency like LED lights, conservation projects like smart thermostats and insulated buildings and innovation such as the "Passivhaus" have not even been tried and offer 21 st century solutions!
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David Smith
0 #4 Biomass Energy is good for OregonDavid Smith 2011-08-09 18:04:59
Not all biomass is created equal. Its carbon neutrality is a function of its source and process inputs. All renewable energy sources, including wind and solar, have process inputs that impact their carbon foot print. Biomass derived from sustainable forestry or agriculture, and converted to usable energy through advanced combustion or gasification systems equipped with proper emission controls may be not only neutral, but carbon positive and nearly benign.
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