One of the most ambitious rural job creation ideas in Oregon comes from a Ph.D. scientist eight years past retirement age who has figured out a way to run coal burning power plants on—plants.
Hiroshi Morihara of HM3 Energy in Gresham hopes to start up factories throughout rural Oregon to replace coal with torrefied biomass.
By Ben Jacklet
Imagine replacing coal with a clean-burning, carbon-neutral fuel source.
Imagine generating the same amount of electricity at the same power plants already used for coal — without spending millions to modify the plant, or billions to replace it.
Now imagine 20 to 25 new factories in some of the most economically depressed timber towns in Oregon, humming with activity as workers produce this new fuel source.
Imagine 1,500 new jobs bringing new life to moribund industrial parks from Coos Bay to Prineville to Burns.
These seemingly far-flung scenarios are the pillars of the latest business venture of Hiroshi Morihara, a 73-year-old scientist and business leader with a long record of accomplishments.
Morihara spent the 1990s running complex biotech companies in the Bay Area, flying from Portland to San Francisco each Monday morning at 6 and returning each weekend. Prior to that, he helped develop an advanced silicon processing plant in Moses Lake, Wash., that is still operating with the same technology after 25 years of production. Somewhere along the way, he and a partner bought the sprawling Persimmons Golf Course in Gresham, so when he wasn’t flying to and from the Bay Area to oversee the work of high-level scientists, he was running the golf course, teaching skiing (certified ski instructor since 1974) or running marathons (52 so far). “I’m used to being super busy,” he says, with a shrug.
Morihara is the founder and CEO of HM3 Energy, a small startup specializing in the torrefaction of woody biomass. Torrefaction is the process of using extreme heat to convert plant material into a dry, dense fuel that burns efficiently and cleanly. Morihara says he and his team of scientists can convert any plant material — forest slash, juniper, waste wood, crop residues, giant cane, even cow dung — into dense briquettes that can be crushed and fed into a coal-burning power plant with no adjustments to the plant. These briquettes are hydrophobic, meaning they can be stored outdoors in the rain, and when they are burned they emit no mercury and far less sulfur than coal. And while they do emit greenhouse gases, Morihara argues that burning biomass is a carbon-neutral act, since plants absorb the same amount of carbon during their life cycles as they release when burned. Coal, by contrast, is a fossil fuel mined from the earth that adds new carbon to the atmosphere when it is burned.