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Before Solyndra, a long history of failed government energy projects

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Solyndra, the solar-panel maker that received more than half a billion dollars in federal loans from the Obama administration only to go bankrupt this fall, isn’t the first dud for U.S. government officials trying to play venture capitalist in the energy industry.

The Clinch River Breeder Reactor. The Synthetic Fuels Corporation. The hydrogen car. Clean coal. These are but a few examples spanning several decades — a graveyard of costly and failed projects.

Not a single one of these much-ballyhooed initiatives is producing or saving a drop or a watt or a whiff of energy, but they have managed to burn through far more more taxpayer money than the ill-fated Solyndra. An Energy Department report in 2008 estimated that the federal government had spent $172 billion since 1961 on basic research and the development of advanced energy technologies.

What does Washington have to show for these investments? And should the government even be in the business of promoting particular energy technologies?

Some economists, executives and financiers — as well as Energy Secretary Steven Chu — argue that the government must play a role because certain technologies have non-financial benefits, such as producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions or easing U.S. reliance on foreign oil. The semiconductor industry is often held up as a model of how government money can help build a new type of economy.

But others argue that the history of government attempts to reach for the holy grail of new energy technology — a history that features both political parties — is not inspiring. “We’re making very large bets, and the decisions seem to be more grounded in politics and geography than in engineering and science,” said Michael Graetz, a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of “The End of Energy.”

Consider the saga of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon set a goal of building an experimental nuclear power plant. The Clinch River reactor was supposed to be a sort of perpetual motion machine, producing power as well as plutonium that could be used in other plants.

Private utilities agreed to kick in $175 million, less than half of the $400 million that the Atomic Energy Commission estimated it would cost to build. As expenses ballooned, the government covered all the overruns. The project was criticized by activists and scientists worried about the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. Cheap uranium undercut it.

After President Ronald Reagan was elected, Clinch River survived the first round of his spending cuts, in part out of deference to Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), a strong supporter of the reactor, which was in his home state. But finally, in 1983, with the Congressional Budget Office saying the cost might exceed $4 billion, Congress terminated the program. Blueprints had been drawn up, modeling done, components ordered and some ground cleared, but the reactor was never built. The price tag for the federal government: $1.7 billion ($3.9 billion in today’s dollars).

Then there was the Synthetic Fuels Corporation.

President Jimmy Carter called it the “keystone” of U.S. energy policy; Congress authorized $17 billion for it to act as a sort of investment bank, funding projects that would turn plentiful U.S. coal and shale into oil and gas. Carter set a goal of producing 2 million barrels a day of “synfuels” by 1990.

Not quite. A handful of coal and auto companies tapped the new funds to build a facility that was intended to produce 50,000 barrels a day, the first of what was supposed to be a network of synfuel plants, many on federal lands. But after oil prices leveled off, then fell, in the early 1980s, the project was not economically sound, even with government help. The private partners pulled out.

Congress ousted the corporation’s president in 1983 after the entity was accused of handing out money for political reasons. In 1986 the corporation closed down. It had spent $2 billion (more than $4 billion in today’s dollars).

This sort of industrial policy fell out of favor in the Reagan era and into the 1990s, but then it returned, as fears of climate change spawned new “clean energy” ideas.

President George W. Bush had his own pet projects. In his 2003 State of the Union address, he called for “a new national commitment” to work toward hydrogen-powered vehicles so that “our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom.”

But on the road to the showroom, the hydrogen car made a wrong turn. From 2004 through 2008, the federal government poured $1.2 billion into hydrogen vehicle projects; the Government Accountability Office noted that about a quarter of that money went to “congressionally directed projects” outside the initiative’s original research and development scope. Visitors to General Motors outside Detroit could drive a vehicle powered by hydrogen, but the technology was costly, and there was no infrastructure to support the vehicles. They died in development.

The “clean coal” movement has been no more successful. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have sought to put money into efforts that would make coal more appealing by taking its greenhouse emissions and burying them. After a carbon-capture project in Alaska burned through $117 million during the 1990s, Republican lawmakers tried to give the moribund project another $125 million in 2005. Just this year, the utility AEP, one of the nation’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide, abandoned a pilot project because it was too expensive — even though the Energy Department was willing to kick in $334 million, half the expected cost. A North Dakota project was shelved last December despite a $100 million federal grant.

Bush launched what was supposed to be a $1 billion project to separate carbon dioxide from the emissions of a coal power plant in Illinois and bury the gas underground. Several years later, cost estimates have climbed, the project has been scaled back — and it still hasn’t broken ground.

Despite this track record and the recent Solyndra failure, Energy Secretary Chu remains undeterred. Citing examples from Civil War-era railroads to airplanes to semiconductors, he has defended government’s role in funding new technologies and promising companies.

“Americans have always led by looking ahead. Even in the midst of the Civil War, when our country was under incredible stress, we planned for the future,” Chu said in September. “President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which authorized generous public financing for two private companies — Union Pacific Railroad Company and Central Pacific Railroad Company — to lower the investor risk in building railroads in unsettled territories. In 1869, the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed at Promontory Summit, Utah, revolutionizing transport in this country and opening up a world of possibilities for industry.”

Enter Stanford University professor Richard White, a historian of the American West who wrote “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.”

“I admire Steven Chu a great deal, but his knowledge of the Pacific Railway Act unfortunately appears to be about equal to my knowledge of high-energy physics,” White said in an interview. He said the legislation produced a disaster far larger than the lifeless factory that Solyndra has left behind.

White said that Union Pacific and Central Pacific became two of the most hated corporations in the West, spawning political opposition wherever they went. Within 10 years of giving them land grants and loan guarantees, the federal government reversed its policy and eventually sued to recover its investment. The litigation dragged on into the 20th century.

Chu has also argued that the government should help ramp up manufacturing. He says that while the internal-combustion engine was invented in Germany, Henry Ford mastered the assembly line and made the United States the world leader in automaking. However, historians note, Ford did not receive government assistance.

Some experts also question the semiconductor example, in which the government purportedly created an industry through military purchases. Jack Spencer, a nuclear power and energy expert at the Heritage Foundation, said that the Pentagon supported the semiconductor industry because it wanted “to kill people better through innovation, but its goal wasn’t to create commercial enterprises.”

Moreover, he added, if the broader marketplace hasn’t created enough incentives for a new technology such as solar or wind energy to thrive, then loan guarantees or grants will only postpone the death of a company.

But Chu isn’t the only one who thinks the government has a role to play.

David Eaglesham, chief technology officer at First Solar, a leading maker of thin-film solar panels, says government funding for basic research during the 1990s kept the company alive when it comprised about “10 guys working in Toledo.” He said the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory funded “pretty much everything” when it came to technology, but “at low levels.”

Many policy experts say some of government’s biggest energy investment payoffs have come in the small stuff, such as testing the use of magnesium alloys to make lightweight car batteries more efficient or developing ballasts that make compact fluorescent bulbs more efficient.

Still others say that the nearly $40 billion paid out by the federal government so far to subsidize corn-based ethanol is a success story; ethanol has displaced more than half a million barrels a day of petroleum. But that benefit must be weighed against whether ethanol has driven up corn prices, along with evidence that it may be worse than oil from a greenhouse gas perspective.

Energy innovation is simply different from innovation in other industries, argue Edward Steinfeld and Jason Lee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In electronics and information technology, they note in an unpublished article, the end products are cheap, consumers buy new ones every few months or years, and much of the value is captured by the front-end designer rather than the manufacturer. (Think Apple.)

Energy technologies, however, “are more expensive by several orders of magnitude, and they have much longer life cycles,” they say. “A solar panel is expected to last 20 to 25 years. Moreover, for many of these technologies, including thin-film solar, the key knowledge lies not just in upstream design, but also in learning how to produce inexpensively at high volume.” Essentially, Steinfeld and Lee conclude, “to pull off energy innovation successfully, you need scale.”

And, of course, you also need to keep innovating. As First Solar’s Eaglesham says, “there’s never the last word in technology.” Doing all this requires massive sums of money — and an acceptance of the inevitability of frequent failure.

That could be a tough sell in Washington, given the downfall of Solyndra and the unsteady status of some other recipients of Energy Department assistance. Massachusetts-based Beacon Power, maker of a nifty and effective — but unprofitable — method of using flywheels for electricity storage, filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 30. Ener1, a maker of lithium-ion batteries and a recipient of an Energy Department grant, was delisted by the Nasdaq Oct. 28 because of its low stock price.

Perhaps the federal government is, as former Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers put it, “a crappy VC,” or venture capitalist. Or perhaps it should stick to funding basic research. But if more recipients of Energy Department loan guarantees falter, they will become part of a long, if undistinguished, history of failure.

mufsons@washpost.com

Steven Mufson covers energy for The Washington Post.

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