Episode Description

Today, we’re asking the question, “Why Tennessee?” Why are so many advanced energy companies moving to or expanding operations in our state?

In 2021, Ford committed to a $5.6 billion investment in West Tennessee for electric vehicle production at its BlueOval City campus. Last year, WACKER, a German-based polysilicon manufacturer and long-time TAEBC member, announced a $200 million expansion at its facility in Charleston, Tennessee. We could go on and on.

To discuss why so many advanced energy companies are choosing Tennessee, Host Cortney Piper will speak with Heath Jones, Managing Director of Hitachi Zosen Inova’s North American operations, about why the company recently relocated its headquarters and expanded its operations in East Tennessee.

Learn more about TAEBC and HZI.

Episode Transcript

Cortney Piper: Welcome to Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s Advanced Energy sector. I’m your host, Cortney Piper.

In the first season of our podcast, we’ve explored everything from how we can build out a fast-charging EV network in our state to the best ways to support early-stage advanced energy startups. It’s been a pleasure speaking with industry leaders who are passionate about deploying advanced energy solutions and advocating for this important and growing sector of our economy.

Today, we ask the question. Why Tennessee? Why are so many advanced energy companies moving to or expanding operations in our state from major automotive manufacturers to our international energy companies? It’s difficult to ignore the fact that many organizations are choosing Tennessee again and again.

To help answer why I’ll be speaking with Hitachi Zosen Inova or HZI, a global cleantech company about why they recently relocated their headquarters to Tennessee and expanded their operations in East Tennessee. Before we get into our episode, I wanted to share an important milestone with you all. This episode marks our first season finale.

Thank you to our listeners for joining us on our first season, and we look forward to season two. Keep an eye out on our social media channels and website. Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to hear about upcoming episodes in advanced energy news. Also, if you’ve enjoyed our conversations and learning more about advanced energy on this podcast, become a member, join us. Visit our website at tnadvancedenergy.com. 

Now onto today’s show. 

I am pleased to welcome back our sponsor, Brent Ball, FirstBank market president for Knoxville, Tennessee. Brent, what’s the value of partnerships such as our own with Energizing Tennessee in supporting the advanced energy economy?

Brent Ball: Well, you know, first off, thanks for having me here. We love the relationship, and again, any way that we can get back to the community, help people understand more of what’s going on. You know, in Knoxville or in our region, we’d love to help. And, and again, we know how important energy initiatives are and again, it’s something that a lot of people do not know about.

So any way that we can help get the word out there, we will do it. And again, you know, at FirstBank we’re headquartered here in Tennessee, have local decisions and of course, we’d love for somebody to listen to this podcast and give us a call if there’s a way that we can help.

Cortney Piper: Absolutely. Brent, we have so enjoyed our partnership with FirstBank. You all have made Energizing Tennessee possible in helping us spread the good news about Tennessee’s advanced energy economy. So thank you and thank you for coming on the show. 

Brent Ball: Thank you, Cortney. 

Cortney Piper: For today’s episode, I’m pleased to speak with Heath Jones, the managing director for HZI’s North American Operations. HZI is a global, cleantech company that operates in the energy from waste and renewable gas space. Its North American headquarters is located in Knoxville. More on that in a minute, but it’s an international company with roots in Switzerland and part of Japan’s Hitachi Zosen Corporation.

Heath, thanks for coming on the show. 

Heath Jones: Thank you so much for having me, I’m really excited to be here and tell you a little bit about HZI. 

Cortney Piper: For those who don’t know about HZI, tell our listeners about what HZI does and its mission regarding sustainability and advanced energy. 

Heath Jones: I think you really, I think you really touched on it up front. I mean Hitachi Zosen Corporation is 140-year-old Osaka-based company with roots in Zurich, Switzerland, and Osaka. And throughout the course of history, it’s really been focused on how we make the world a better place. And one aspect of our business is really trying to figure out how to best utilize waste.

As we continue to have, you know, kind of growth in the US and in other parts of the world, we all generate waste. And one of our missions here is how do we do that in the most efficient, environmentally friendly way. And that’s really our charge at HZI is to figure out how to take that waste and reuse it, repurpose it, and create a clean-energy source out of that.

Cortney Piper: Okay, well let’s talk about that. It’s called waste, or it’s called energy from waste or waste to energy. Tell our listeners what that is. What is energy from waste and what is it used for? 

Heath Jones: So waste to energy or energy from waste is really about thermal treatment. It’s about utilizing the waste in a thermal recycling approach.

We recover precious metals, we recover salts. And then we ultimately use the heat from that thermal recycling for either district heating in large urban environments or creating electricity. And then, you know, that is ultimately used you know, to generate electricity for homes or cars or whatever.

Cortney Piper: Now, what kinds of waste are you taking in? Tell us more about what that waste is. What does it look like when it comes to you? 

Heath Jones: It’s municipal solid waste, so it’s all waste that would ultimately go into a landfill and maybe sit there for a hundred years. Right. So we take that and we process that into a waste energy facility.

So we grind it up and then we use it as fuel and treat that waste. And out of that out of that plant, we’ll recover, you know, precious metals, we’ll recover salt. And then, you know, that’s ultimately used. We’ve taken that waste and instead of putting it in a landfill and letting it sit there for a century, we’ve taken and treated that waste and created electricity.

Cortney Piper: So this is coming from, when you say municipal solid waste, I mean, that’s waste that is the city, for example, I live in Knoxville also, is this when the city’s coming to pick up my trash? Anything that might go to a city landfill or a county landfill?

Heath Jones: It is, it’s mattresses, trash, whatever it is used to do that. In Europe in particular, we have about 60 of those plants here in the U.S. In other parts of the world, that’s a much more prevalent approach than landfilling. So we have about 600 references worldwide. So we have a large installed base. And you may be in a city like Copenhagen, in Europe, and walked by a waste energy facility and never even know it’s there. It’s in downtown Copenhagen, for example. 

Cortney Piper: Interesting. Okay, so then let’s talk about renewable natural gas. What is it, how is it made it?

Heath Jones: It sounds like a very fancy, complicated term, but really what we’re doing is backyard compostor, right? You put organic matter into that backyard compostor, you know, leaves food, food scraps or whatever, and you’re really using Mother Nature to break down that organic material into its natural form. And when it does that, it releases methane. And so what we’re doing is really taking something in like a, you know, upsize, backyard composter, if you will, at an industrial scale, and we’re driving off that methane in a controlled environment and capturing all of that methane. And then we’re taking it and either cleaning it and using it for some sort of energy source. So it’s really about the breaking down of organic matter and harnessing and what’s going off on it. 

Cortney Piper: And what is natural gas used for? It can be used in any kind of, thermal application, give us just a little bit more color about what it’s used for and what we might, an energy source we might already be familiar with and how it’s like that or not like that.

Heath Jones: No, absolutely. So renewable natural gas is really a carbon-negative natural gas. So you can use it in the heating of homes, in cooking in creating electricity.

So, what we do at one of our facilities like in San Lu Obispo, California, we take curbside green waste organic waste that you would see our recycle bins. And we take that, we grind it up, we put it in one of our anaerobic digesters, and then ultimately we create power and we put that onto the grid.

And then ultimately, in addition to that power, we create an organic compost that we ultimately sell to wineries, and it’s certified organic. And I think it’s really good for everyone, it’s good for the consumer, it’s good for the community and it ultimately get good for the in use for customers.

Cortney Piper: I love this. I love this. Okay, now let’s talk a little bit more about your operations, the business. HZI I relocated its North American Hub from Georgia to Tennessee back in 2020. Then in November of 2022, the company announced it was investing $6.6 million to expand operations at its Knoxville headquarters, creating 90 new jobs. So my question for you, Heath, is why Tennessee? Why did HZI choose not only to relocate to the state, but expand its operations here too? 

Heath Jones: I think it’s pretty easy. I mean, Tennessee has such a long and storied history in innovation from an energy standpoint, a material science standpoint. And you look at the infrastructure that’s really grown up around that in East Tennessee whether that’s with Oak Ridge National Lab or the University of Tennessee or conjunction with activities at TAEBC has done over the last number of decades, and there’s really the infrastructure, there’s the innovation, there’s you know, the expertise here. When you look at an area that’s relatively small in nature in comparison to Atlanta or Nashville you know, Knoxville is, pretty concentrated and it’s got a great resource for growth. 

Cortney Piper: HZI is headquartered in Tennessee, and now you’re expanding in Knoxville. What are your plans for doing business in Tennessee? 

Heath Jones: We would love to do business in Tennessee. It’s something that we have looked into, we think that renewable natural gas and waste energy really fits into where Tennessee is going and its focus on, you know, clean energy and innovation.

So we’ve reached out to a number of people, you know, locally at the University of Tennessee and also within the business community about possible ways that we can partner either with, you know, large farming operations large distilling operations or ultimately food production operations or even thinking about how do we help solve the waste issues in a growing community like Nashville.

So, we’re really looking for opportunities in the state of Tennessee. Being a native Tennessean, I would love to do something in the state. And so we’re definitely looking at some opportunities here. And hopefully, in the future, we’ll be able to announce something. 

Cortney Piper: Well, we are so happy that you’re here.

Now let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about workforce development. This expansion and the relocation, it’s going to bring in 90 new jobs. So workforce development is becoming an increasingly important topic, especially with so many employers like HZI, relocating or expanding in Tennessee. So, why was Knoxville the right fit for you in terms of the labor market? When you look at those 90 jobs coming. 

Heath Jones: Well, I think first off, we have a great base of employees, as I just mentioned, about why, you know, why Knoxville or why Tennessee? I think we have a great base of resources locally in order to kind of build a foundation off of, and then you have a, you know, some top-notch engineering schools.

The University of Tennessee, Tennessee Tech, I think are producing some really great capable engineers. And we’ve talked to both of those institutions. We’ve talked to Penn and we’ll continue to kind of further, you know, those conversations as well. And I think for us, you know, there’s that education component to it, there’s all the infrastructure from what TVA and ORNL and others have brought here. And there’s some really great kind of smaller independent engineering firms that support those organizations. And for us, I mean, that just seemed to be like a win-win and that we could kind leverage further.

Cortney Piper: The workforce and the talent development assets that we have here are really fantastic. And I think one of the great things about them too, whether you’re talking about a Tennessee Tech or a University of Tennessee or our community college system, is they all work together, and especially our community college system as well, they can be very hyper-focused and agile and move fast when it comes to industry needs.

So, so glad that you, you mentioned those as one of those reasons. 

Heath Jones: Just one of the other reasons is it’s easy to attract people to east Tennessee. You know, people have been coming here to the Appalachian Mountains and gray Smokey Mountains for many years. And it’s one of the most visited national parks in the country and people love it here. And if you can get people here it’s an easy sell. 

Cortney Piper: Now these 90 jobs, what are these folks gonna be doing? Give us kind of the short list of job titles, job descriptions, give us a breakdown. 

Heath Jones: Yeah, so the majority of those jobs are going to be engineering-related jobs.

So chemical engineering electrical engineering, controls engineering mechanical engineering, also drafters and designers associated with that. But it’ll also be, you know, like accountants or project managers or procurement, that will be needed to support the projects. 

Cortney Piper: Okay. Now you mentioned some of the partnerships HZI has formed to ensure you have access to the talent pool you need.

Can you expand on any of those partnerships or tell us an interesting anecdote or how you met those folks, how you got networked together? Anything else that you wanna share about those partnerships? 

Heath Jones: Yeah. You know, one of the interesting things that happened in the fall is we got contacted by the University of Tennessee to support, you know, education and kind of expansion efforts in supporting, you know the Argentinian government in looking at anaerobic digestion. So I thought that was pretty cool, I mean the University of Tennessee had seen some of our expansion. They had reached out through just obviously some mutual connections.

And we were able to kind of partner up and, and, and talk to the Department of Agriculture and some other folks down in, in Argentina about, you know about agriculture and how we’re utilizing waste to generate a renewable you know, energy source. And I thought that was pretty great. I mean, we’re, we’re relatively young you know, in the U.S. and so already have those kinds of connections and going on a trip like that with the university and, and meeting with the Argentinian government, I thought was pretty fantastic. And really underscored the support that we have by the community and the engagement that the community like it like the University of Tennessee has with the local community, but also with the global community.

Cortney Piper: Absolutely. Now onto a really big recognition that you all received each year the Knoxville Chamber presents the Pinnacle Business Awards. And after only three years in Knoxville, HZI was the recipient of a Pinnacle Business Award in the innovator category. So first, congratulations, that’s big news. And second, what was your reaction to receiving that? 

Heath Jones: Yeah, really humbled, really humbled. There’s been a lot of hard work over the last few years to kind of get us to where we are today here in Knoxville and in North America. But very humbled. I think it was really indicative of two things.

I think one, all the hard work that people have put in place here locally and also globally to really help us lift this off here in the U.S. and in Canada. So I think it’s really indicative of that hard work. 

And also, I think the other thing that I would say is that it’s really indicative of the engagement of the business community in Knoxville and in Tennessee. You know both mayors, representatives from the governor’s office, economic development, universities were all part of you know, helping us kind of lift off in supporting us. And I think it really just is a testament to the engagement that we have in our business community and in our local economic development community.

Cortney Piper: That’s great. All right. Now, Heath, you have joined and HZI has joined the TAEBC board at our annual meeting. That’s where we announced you were joining our board of directors. So what value does TAEBC provide organizations like HZI and what are you looking forward to with being a part of this organization’s leadership?

Heath Jones: So I, I think it really provides a platform for Tennessee to really think about energy in a new and innovative way. I think it provides an educational platform and an advocacy platform, and I think that’s really, really important. I mean, as we continue to try to grow as a state and become, you know, much greener in thinking about energy in new and different ways and innovative.

 I think platforms like this are fantastic and I think it’s much needed in the state of Tennessee. So for us, it helps to give us a platform. And also what I hope to be able to get out of it is just learning about other technologies, other companies, that are doing really cool and innovative things.

And if we can help the state of Tennessee you know advance, you know, green energy in the state, I think that’s fantastic. And I think, you know, rising seeds floats all boats. And we want to help that in the state of Tennessee. 

Cortney Piper: Well, Heath, you know, you mentioned advocacy and education and you know, if you had your easy button or if you had your wish, is there any specific topic that you think requires more education in Tennessee or yeah, just anything related to advanced energy that you think decision-makers need to hear a little bit more about?

Heath Jones: East Tennessee and in, you know, I’ve recently got a Rivian truck and I think there’s a lot of hurdles when in perception hurdles, when people think about electric vehicles and they think about, oh, what, you know, what am I gonna have to give up? I haven’t given up anything. And I think getting over that perception hurdle and really thinking about how people think new and different and just getting people to take a little bit of leap of faith and getting outside their comfort zone, I think is really great.

And I use truck example because trucks are at the heart of East Tennessee, people love them. But there’s also this concern with what do people have to give up if they try something new and different. So if I had, if I had one thing, it would be really to teach people how they can make a personal impact on the environment through just the simple thing about how do they sort their waste, how to recycle their waste, and that we can make this a much cleaner world in a world without a lot of effort or a cleaner world without a lot of effort put to it. So I think it’d really be educational on how they can kind of better manage waste and utilize that for a green energy source, for today, tomorrow, and years to come. 

Cortney Piper: Heath Jones HZI, I thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today, but before I let you go, where can people learn more about you or HZI? 

Heath Jones: Yeah, so you can check us out on the web hz-innova.com. We also have a LinkedIn page for our global operations in North America.

And you guys can hit me up on LinkedIn as well and I’m pretty active and so I answer any questions you may have.

Cortney Piper: Thanks for coming on the show, Heath. 

Heath Jones: Thank you so much for having me. 

And that’s our show. Thanks for tuning into Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank.

Cortney Piper: We’re glad to be your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. If you like what you heard, please share it with others or leave a rating and review. To catch the latest episodes, subscribe on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to follow TAEBC on Social media or sign up for our newsletter to hear about our events or learn even more about Tennessee’s growing advanced energy economy.