When General Electric Co. asked the Department of Energy for $1.2 million to grow seaweed in the Pacific Ocean and try to extract energy from it, DOE scientists were dubious.
It may be possible to get energy from seaweed, they said, but it would be better to try growing the weed "under well-controlled conditions . . . on land-based aquatic test sites."
But Energy Department higher-ups approved the project anyway, and General Electric in December 1978 carefully transplanted 100 kelp plants onto a quarter acre of Pacific Ocean floor.
Within two months, all the kelp was gone.
The kelp calamity is one of 10 exotic energy research projects criticized in an internal DOE report accusing the agency of wasting millions of dollars on studies with little promise of solving the nation's energy problems.
The department ignored the recommendations of its own evaluators and gave grants to projects the experts said were a waste of money, passed out funds without evaluating other applications and paid for "research" on equipment that could be bought right on the shelf, the report says.
The department's inspector general looked at the performance of only one small office -- the Biomass Energy Systems Programs -- and concluded the whole DOE research funding systems needs to be tightened up.
Energy officials blame the biomass boondoggles on growing pains in a research budget that has jumped from $400,000 to $56 million in four years. The system had already been tightened up -- and several staff members transferred -- by the time the inspector general's report was prepared, they insist.
But by then millions of dollars had been spent.
The seaweed scientists not only had trouble keeping track of their kelp, they also apparently got their money for the project from the government when private funds were readily available.
The idea was to turn the seaweed into a gas that could replace natural gas. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allows gas companies to spend money collected from customers on such projects.
But DOE grant-givers decided to spend the taxpayers' money, without determining that their colleagues at FERC had already told the gas companies to pay for the project themselves.
Another million went to Northtwest Mississippi Junior College for research on what was called "A Total Solar Conversion System." That turned out to be a wood-burning heating plant "with all components readily available as off-the-shelf-items."
DOE investigators said the system "is not intended to advance the state of the art," and was not evaluated by the department before the grant was approved. They also found that "there is no one in the Biomass Energy Systems Program overseeing how the $1,000,000 is being spent."
Then there was the $830,000 the University of Missouri wanted to studying extracting gases from wood. DOE asked eight scientists to evaluate the project. Six of the eight were picked at the recommendation of the university and not surprisingly, they approved the project.