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OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden listens to HM3 Energy CEO Hiroshi Morihara explain his companys biomass torrefaction process the company is marketing as an innovative, environmentally friendly alternative to coal. Before Troutdale Mayor Doug Daoust retired from the U.S. Forest Service, part of his job involved finding markets for the scrubby wood debris left behind from a timber cut.

“We were always struggling with what to do with the woody biomass,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s rotting in the woods, so right now there’s no shortage.”

In a pleasing quirk of fate, the city he leads is now home to an alternative energy company that knows exactly what to do with the harvested “forest waste” of tree limbs, stumps, bark and other organic and agricultural detritus: transform it into a reliable, clean and economically viable fuel capable of replacing coal as a key energy source.

Daoust was among about 80 invited guests and Oregon dignitaries to tour the HM3 Energy Demonstration Plant off of West Columbia River Gorge Highway on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 18. The facility, a $4 million expansion/relocation of its former pilot plant on the Mt. Hood Community College campus, came online early this year.

Hiroshi Morihara, chief executive officer and founder of HM3, led a tour of the small but complex plant that — in a process called torrefaction, or “TorrB” — heats and densifies woody biomass into coal-like briquettes that can be used as fuel for power-generating plants.

Replacing coal with HM3’s biomass briquettes would help reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere and slow the effects of global warming-related climate change, Morihara said. It would also prove vital for Oregon’s energy supply, as a 2010 agreement calls for Portland General Electric’s Boardman facility, the state’s only coal-fired power plant, to close by the end of 2020.

Morihara, a Gresham resident, and his HM3 associates are in negotiations with New Energy Development Co. Ltd., of Japan. The company is interested in licensing HM3’s technology to build at least one manufacturing plant in Oregon to fuel currently coal-fired plants in Japan that came back online after a major 2011 earthquake damaged the country’s nuclear power infrastructure.

“Because of the earthquake, they have to start burning coal again,” Morihara explained. “The government is (encouraging) use of biomass to produce power. Japan doesn’t have much biomass, but Oregon does.”

The location of a plant, which would be built to produce 100,000 tons of torrefied briquettes per year, has yet to be determined, but Morihara said design and construction could begin as early as spring 2017.

Re-fuel and replace

Morihara, who founded HM3 Energy in Gresham in 2008 to explore innovative energy alternatives, will stay busy marketing and demonstrating its latest biomass technology for use in Oregon and beyond.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Biomass briquettes roll off the line at HM3 Energys demonstration plant in Troutdale on their way to becoming torrefied brittle, dense, water-resistant pellets that burn more efficiently - and cleanly - than coal.

“It’s very important that people at the policy level understand what this process brings to Oregon and the rest of the country,” he said, praising U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) for supporting policies and funding that encourage alternative fuels development. “Senator Wyden has taken the lead in policies that help in growing (alternative energy) economy and build infrastructure (leading to) small business job creation.”

Wyden, who spoke to the gathering after touring the facility, lauded recent expansions in the Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit to include start-ups, allowing businesses with annual gross receipts of less than $5 million to take a credit against their payroll taxes for up to five years.

“The R&D Tax Credit is to be used (to) pay wages for innovation (-oriented) jobs,” Wyden said, noting the unique relationship between federal lawmakers and job creation. “We try to come up with policies that create a good climate that allows businesses like HM3 and other alternative energy (innovators) do their thing.”

The senator praised the efforts of the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center (Oregon BEST), which awarded HM3 Energy an $85,000 commercialization grant in 2012 and another $40,171 matching grant from Business Oregon in spring 2015.

“Their view is, we in Oregon will show the country, even the world, how to do biomass (energy) right,” he said. “It makes economic sense, as well as for long-term environmental benefit, to keep in step with science.”

HM3’s collecting of forest slash creates auxiliary jobs in cutting and transporting material while reducing an accelerator of forest fires — in the process minimizing smog and creating a green-friendly fuel source.

“At a big coal power plant, they transport the coal to the power plant and they grind it into a very fine powder, then they blow it into the coal boiler to produce heat,” Morihara explained in 2015. “This material can do the same thing. It’s easy to grind into fine powder so you can mix it with coal or you can use it instead of coal to power the furnace. Power plants don’t have to make any changes to the facilities they have.”

New business model

Morihara and a handful of like-minded associates got HM3 Energy started in 2008 with a pilot plant at Mt. Hood Community College to experiment with poplar tree-derived cellulosic ethanol. The resulting fuel pellets failed to reach the desired consistency, however, and the crew began looking into other alternatives.

“The team held together,” recalled Andrew Green, an HM3 project manager and process engineer, at the Tuesday event. “Once we figured out that was not the right direction, it was like, ‘OK, let’s switch gears.’ Then, boom!”

Between 2010 and 2013, HM3 Energy attempted to establish its first commercial plant in Prineville, but was unable to secure the right combination of grant-based and private funding.

Since then, HM3 changed its business model from building its own production plants to licensing the technology to companies such as New Energy Development Co. So far, Morihara is encouraged by the interest HM3 is seeing.

“The good thing about it is, we have the feedstock, the technology and the market,” he said. “And (power providers) can use it. We have the whole thing lined up.”

Pamplin Media Group business reporters Jules Rogers and Jason Cheney contributed to this story.

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