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February 21, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Four years after relocating to Knoxville, HZI USA growing rapidly

The company’s core business globally is recovering precious renewable energy from waste materials. In North America, the main focus is renewable natural gas.

In early November, Hitachi Zosen Inova USA LLC (HZI USA) announced a major expansion with a new location in West Knoxville and the addition of 90 high-wage jobs (see article here).

“This entity is a start-up growing very rapidly,” says Brian Wanamaker, the company’s Senior Legal Counsel for North American operations. HZI USA is a subsidiary of HZI which was founded in Zurich, Switzerland in 1933 and has been a part of Hitachi Zosen Corporation, one of Japan’s largest industrial and engineering firms, since 2010. HZI itself has 2,000 employees globally, including 65 in North America, while Hitachi Zosen has about 12,000.

HZI USA’s Managing Director is Heath Jones, who joined the company four years ago and is credited by Wanamaker with being the power behind the company’s relocation from Atlanta to Knoxville in 2019 and the recent significant expansion plans.

“Heath charges ahead,” Wanamaker says of his boss. “Heath was the only person involved at the time and convinced HZI to relocate to Knoxville to capitalize on the regions skilled labor and to collaborate with east Tennessee’s unique clean energy assets like UT, ORNL, TVA, and EPRI.” As described on Jones’ LinkedIn page, he has been charged with:

  • Expanding HZI’s North America presence and project portfolio in energy from waste, renewable gas, and systems and service business areas;
  • Growing and maturing HZI USA’s engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) capabilities in the United States and Canada; and
  • Strengthening and expanding HZI’s service and operational capabilities in the U.S. States and Canada for HZI-owned plants and third-party customers.

During a recent interview with Wanamaker and two senior HZI USA executives – Daryl Johnson, Director of Engineering and the fourth hire after the relocation to Knoxville, and Mike Phillips, Business Development Leader, we learned a good deal more about the company’s global capabilities as well as the U.S. focus.

The company’s core business globally is recovering precious renewable energy from waste materials. In North America, Wanamaker says the “main focus is renewable natural gas . . . anaerobic digestion that happens naturally. We offer systems to control breakdown and capture methane.”

Worldwide, HZI owns a few facilities, such as one in San Luis Obispo, CA that is pictured above. It is a dry anaerobic digestion plant that was not only the first Kompogas® facility in the U.S., but also HZI’s first DBFOO project (design, build, finance, own, and operate) in the U.S. That means that HZI, in close cooperation with its parent company Hitachi Zosen, undertook both engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) of the project, while also acting as financier, owner, and operator.

HZI USA also contracts with other companies to design and develop their waste-to-energy plants. “We do a lot of retrofits to existing facilities,” Wanamaker explains.

With the growing concerns in the country about alternatives to landfilling as well as the interest in addressing climate change, HZI USA is well-positioned for business growth, something that Phillips addressed.

“The major difference in Europe and the U.S. is that Europeans feel landfills are very bad,” he says. “They’re very intent on maximizing and liberating energy out of waste.”

That tide is changing in the U.S. as a result of a number of new federal and state programs and the growing commitment of corporations to sustainability. There’s also the fact that more and more companies are viewing waste as a potential source of energy, including well-known distillers like Jack Daniels Distillery, which announced a major effort in November to utilize its spent distillers’ grains to create an immense amount of renewable natural gas (RNG), and Jim Beam Distillery, which is making a significant investment in anaerobic digestors to convert spent stillage into biogas which will be treated to renewable natural gas standards and piped across the street to the company’s Booker Noe facility.

Phillips talked about California’s SB1383, which was adopted more than six years ago and required local jurisdictions to have diversion programs in place by January 1, 2022. In less than two years, the requirements will include a 75 percent reduction in disposal of organics and a 20 percent increase in edible food recovery.

“About half the states have landfill diversion proclamations,” Phillips said, and there are incentives in place at both the federal and state levels. In the case of the U.S. government, they are referred to as Renewable Identification Number (RIN) credits, while a number of states have adopted or are in the process of adopting Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) credits or similar programs.

Wanamaker added that the recently passed “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” also included new RNG incentives. “The market for what we do is so immature,” he added, “but it really feels like it’s about to take off.”

Many of the individuals who are part of the current Knoxville operation are former colleagues of Jones, Johnson, and Phillips when they previously worked at either GE Power or Alstom Power or both companies.

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