The USC biomass “travesty”

Hats off to Wayne Washington (and his editor — I always like to remember the editors) for a rather overwhelmingly thorough report today on the mess that is the University of South Carolina’s biomass-to-energy project. An excerpt from the lengthy package in The State today:

On June 28, 2009, an explosion rocked the biomass-fueled power plant on the campus of the University of South Carolina.

The force of the blast sent a metal panel some 60 feet toward the control office of the plant at Whaley and Sumter streets, according to documents obtained from USC by The State newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request.

No one was hurt, but USC officials were concerned enough about the “potentially lethal accident” that they ordered an independent safety review and, in a strongly worded letter to the company that had built the plant, made it clear that university staff would not be allowed back into the building until the review was completed.

The blast underscored what some USC officials privately grumbled about for years: That the plant has been a $20 million disaster, a money pit that was poorly planned and built by a company that had never constructed such a cutting-edge “green energy” power plant before.

Interviews with USC officials and a spokeswoman for the company as well as a review of more than 1,800 pages of documents show that…

Rich material for a discussion. Here’s how it is likely to go, although I look forward to unanticipated variations:

Some of you: Yet another example of USC wasting time and money on unproven, pie-in-the-sky energy alternatives and leaving us in a financial hole with little or nothing to show.

Others of you: What a classic case of the private sector not delivering — a Fortune 500 company that takes millions from a  public institution and doesn’t get the job done…

To me, the whole mess is too complex for simple conclusions, but here’s a stab: Some USC officials under the last administration made an unwise, expensive deal, while at the same time trying to insulate us from loss by getting the company to guarantee savings. Then after that, everything went wrong.

But tell me what y’all think.

21 thoughts on “The USC biomass “travesty”

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    I was there on the edges when this went down. We in the ‘hoods were upset because, contrary to the New World Order under Dr. Sorensen, in this case the University tried to sneak some of the approvals (DHEC?) through during the week between Christmas and New Years. Fortunately Bob Guild and John Stucker, among others, were awake, and some needed improvements (the scrubbers, I think) were required.

    I know the parties and read the article carefully. Travesty is serious hyperbole. It appears to me that Kelly and Zeigler, financial wizards who are not dummies and who are good, honorable people as far as my dealings with them have gone (except for the Christmas Surprise described above), but not energy experts, got USC contracts with a Fortune 500 company (I used to work for the law firm that represents them, full-disclosure) that hedged all bets–either the plant saved money or the company paid up. For reasons not clear in the article, JCI has neither delivered its side of the bargain-a clean,safe cost-saving energy source, or paid the specified damages.
    Quasney, also good, smart, competent, honorable, and more knowledgeable about the realities of facilities got stuck with dealing with the “busted” deal.He’s a straight-shooter and gave some fun quotes, but at the end of the day, it’s a buggy plant but a good contract, and the system needs to play out.
    It was a fair bet to make, especially if the people making the decisions aren’t energy engineers (I wonder if anybody over at Swearingen was consulted?), and well-hedged. It has gone down badly in operation. It ain’t over ’til a court rules that USC isn’t entitled to the compensation outlined in the contracts.

  2. Juan Caruso

    What is surprising about academics formulating policies based upon “pie-in-the-sky energy alternatives”?

    The Obama administration is has been the role model for these schemes (e.g. Solyndra and energy policies formulated to drive the price of oil higher).

    Moreover, what is new about “What a classic case of the private sector not delivering” (e.g. Solyndra, etc)? Like Solyndra, Johnson Controls was accorded special attention by an Obama press visit (Aug. 11, 2011).

    Now, to the more complex truth to which Brad alludes, but fails to elaborate:

    1) Johnson Controls, Inc. was awarded more than $400 million in federal stimulus funding grants (as a primary recipient) for green agenda projects throughout the United States. The largest single grant of the entire stimulus package totaled $299,000,000 and was awarded to Johnson Controls to build a lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant that is currently less than 50% complete. (Source:

    2)n the 2010 election cycle, Johnson Controls PAC donated over $16,000 to House Democrats and donated less than half of that amount to arguably left-leaning Republicans. The Senate Democrats saw nearly 5 times the amount of Republicans in the same election cycle with only one republican candidate receiving a donation. (Source:

    3) released a statement 2 days before the president’s visit to Michigan in which C. David Myers, president of Johnson Controls’ Building Efficiency Business, praised the administration for its commitment to retrofitting our nation’s schools. Taking its talking points almost directly from the president’s address to Congress, the statement makes the case for reducing energy costs by investing in retrofitting the buildings.

    Guess what Myers’ division of Johnson Controls does…. it retrofits buildings for energy efficiency.

    4) Non-government business types would have preferred USC award the biomass project competitively (plant construction AND operation) among companies with proven track records in “biomass energy” conversion.

    Is there competence in delivery of biomass energy in a safe and inexpensive manner? In South Carolina alone USC could have observed successful projects now used by private sector corporations (e.g. Milliken and BMW) who are not even in the biomass business!

    So much for the opposing views Brad summarized. Those either too lazy or too limited in critical thinking skills to find out the facts before opining have always sounded more swift than their abilities deserve. Unfortunately, they are too often likely to vote with the same mindset.

  3. Mark Stewart

    Two things struck me: One, USC felt that a power plant was not something that should be competitively bid (though I agree that Johnson Controls is a company that seems to care about its reputation)? Two, nobody obtained building permits, zoning approvals or floodplain designations? Both issues are beyond amateur. Still, this looks most like a disaster entered into by well intentioned parties.

    I would question the posturing that proper due diligence was undertaken; especially with regard to researching marketplace experiences with this technology; which, by the way, is hardly new technology. That goes for Johnson Controls as well. They really took a gamble with this contract.

  4. Nelson

    With all due respect to Kathryn, I disagree – travesty is a pretty good word. In house faculty experts in energy and environmental areas were talked to before the official decision was announced. Some (like myself) were appalled by the idea. It was clear from the beginning that the administration wanted this badly, regardless of the fact that JCI had little experience in this type of biofuel plant and the placement was ridiculous from a safety perspective. Factor in the number of truckloads of wood chips that were proposed to be driving through this part of town every day and the prospect went beyond ridiculous to the realm occupied only by professional administrators. Negative comments were not welcome. Ted Moore’s characterization of the deal and people involved was dead on. I wish he was still here and I have always appreciated his straightforward honesty.

    Further, JCI’s complete disinterest in energy conservation is fully evident in the steaming fumaroles still dotting campus from leaking steam pipes. The ones on Blossom near the pedestrian bridge may have finally been sealed (or maybe the pipe just shut off), but the ones by the library (northwest corner) and just northeast of the statue by the Ed building are still going strong. The wastage from that is phenomenal and has gone on for years.

    I agree with Brad’s comment: Kudos to the State this time!

  5. bud

    What is surprising about academics formulating policies based upon “pie-in-the-sky energy alternatives”?

    Pie in the sky? It’s biomass. That type of energy is thousands of years old. Perhaps this was a bit more high-tech than your Neanderthal camp fire but still, pie in the sky? Not any more so than drilling for oil a mile below the surface of the ocean. That didn’t work out so well either.

  6. Greg Jones

    While I glanced at this story in the paper yesterday (I read it online today) I was more upset about the newspaper itself. For the first time in a very long time (the paper we get delivered to boxes in the hinterlands is not what you get in Columbia) I bought the Sunday paper. $2, are you crazy? Also, once I took out all the ads and coupons, there was hardly any paper left. Not enough really good college football coverage. Has it gotten this sad at newspapers in all cities? I can’t imagine even subscribing to the print edition anymore even if they still delivered it to my town.

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    The decisions seem not to have been made by “academics” but by business people, which seems to have been the problem. JCI was supposed to do the permitting, etc., not USC.

    I would like to know more about the actual academics and other experts who were consulted. It does disturb me that if there were knowledgeable concerns that they were disregarded.

    I also agree that USC needs to disgorge information more readily without requiring FOIA requests.

  8. Juan Caruso

    @ Bud

    The bottom:
    In South Carolina alone USC could have observed successful [energy recycling] projects now used by private sector corporations (e.g. Milliken and BMW) who are not even in the biomass business!

  9. Mark Stewart

    A wood-fired steam plant is certainly an odd combination to be sited on a university campus (and in the heart of a city). Most everyone goes with natural gas when a plant is needed in an urban environment. There is good reason to use wood as a fuel in modern, efficient plants but no matter how you slice it, wood is much more polluting than gas.

    Makes one wonder what kind of public reaction SCE&G would have received had they proposed to build a wood fuel plant on one of their Assembly St properties to meet USC’s steam needs?

  10. Steven Davis

    As commented on “another political blog”, “They are splittin’ atoms and neutrons in supper colliders up in NC and we’re splittin’ cord wood down here in SC.”

  11. Rose

    This isn’t the first time Johnson Controls has promised something and not delivered. It took the regular Energy Plant personnel to explain to us that the temperature and humidity settings we had been promised weren’t possible because JC would have had to install an entirely separate chill water system instead of tying into the existing one.

  12. Brad

    Them boys up in NC have been making great strides with it, achieving quite a sustained reaction. Apparently, with only a peck of peas and half a baking pan of cornbread, they manage to keep it going until the cows come home.

    Bless their hearts…

  13. Brad

    And as a Southern boy, I’m right jealous of them North Carolinians havin’ a “supper collider.” That sounds like some mighty impressive Southern-style high tech.

    I think the way it works is, you get some field peas (preferably, Dixie Lee field peas) spinning around real fast, and then you slip a hunk of corn bread into their path, and WHAM, the peas split the corn bread.

    This allows you to… well, I don’t rightly know what it does in scientific terms, but it tastes really good, especially if you carefully introduce molasses into the vessel…

    Sorry, Steven — I knew it was a typo and all (something I do all the time myself), but the idea of a “supper collider” was just too much fun not to play around with…

  14. Steven Davis

    I didn’t type it, I cut and pasted it. I’m not a journalist, but aren’t you expected to not correct quotes as written?

  15. Kathryn Fenner

    “supper collider” — Is that what happens when Bone-In Artisan Barbecue and 2 Fat 2 Fly drive too fast out of 701 Whaley?

    Maybe if you weren’t quoting from the HeeHaw blog? 😉 (“Hey Grandpa, what’s for supper?”)

  16. Steven Davis

    @Kathryn – I have no idea what that first paragraph means. Are you having a stroke, does someone need to call 911?

  17. Brad

    Seemed pretty clear to me…

    And I’m glad to know you’re not to blame for the typo (although it would be no big deal if you were; we all do stuff like that).

    Whoever typed it first, I enjoyed it…

  18. Kathryn Fenner

    Steven, they are gourmet food trucks — the first one I mentioned sells–guess what?– and the second, chicken wings.It’s been a “thing” for some time here in the big city and much much longer in real cities. They park in various places, frequently at the All Local Farmer’s Market next to 701 Whaley Street. They mostly advertise by social media. They sell food of a very high quality.


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