September 05, 2013
It’s a fundamental
rule of PR: flaunt achievements, disregard setbacks.
Technologies (OPT) employed the strategy when it issued a press
release about a new federal subsidy and ignored a shockingly
competent account of a colossal failure.
moolah: On September 5th, the company trumpeted a “Small Business Innovation
Research (SBIR) Phase I grant of approximately $150,000 to study advanced
control methods for maximizing the wave energy harvesting capability of its
PowerBuoy products.” OPT crowed that less than 12 percent of the U.S.
Department of Energy’s “SBIR and related Small Business Technology Transfer
funding applications were granted in this latest funding round.”
A few days
earlier, OPT declined to disseminate an unflattering story about its marquee endeavor.
Elizabeth Case, committing an act of honest-to-gosh journalism, examined the status of what was to be “America’s
first wave-powered utility.”
A PowerBuoy --
The New York Times likened it to “a
giant cannon stuffed with electronics” -- was supposed to head into the Pacific
surf for testing in the middle of 2009. But Case found that “regulatory and
technical difficulties have all but halted the project.” The Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission “notified the company earlier this year it had violated its
license after failing to file a variety of plans and assessments.” It gets
uglier: “All that remains in the water are pieces of a single anchoring system
on the ocean floor. State officials
have told the New Jersey
company to remove them by month’s end.”
its debacle in Oregon,
OPT’s stock had plunged into
the dumpster -- down nearly 90 percent since its 2007 IPO. The implosion of
such a heavily publicized effort isn’t likely to boost investor interest.
hydrokinetic (MHK) power is an oft-overlooked branch of the Potemkin industry
known as “green energy.” Waves, currents, and tides, like solar and wind, are free.
So to the
country’s energy-illiterate elites, MHK can’t not be part of the glorious renewable future. The subsidies are substantial
-- OPT has received copious funding from the Department of Energy, the Navy,
the Australian government, and the state treasuries of Oregon and New
Jersey. The day the company received its fresh D.C. windfall, many
others did, too, including Resolute Marine Energy, ABB, Columbia Power
Technologies, Ocean Energy USA, the University of Maine, the Electric Power
Research Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of
Washington, Oregon State University,
and Florida Atlantic University.
MHK does have
a success story, but using the term is charitable. In the summer of 2012, Ocean
Renewable Power Company (ORPC) began generating juice for the grid through a
turbine placed beneath Maine’s
Cobscook Bay. The
device is no overachiever -- at peak, it produces 180 kilowatts, or 0.02
percent of a large nuclear- or coal-fueled station. It’s hardly surprising that
ORPC is a corporate-welfare queen, or that it has fallen far short of its
original goal of 5 megawatts of electricity by 2011. (A few hundred miles south,
Verdant Power has yet to connect its East River turbines to the
grid, despite more than a decade of experimentation.)
There’s no solid
estimate of the revenue that’s been squandered on MHK’s multiple flops. At the
federal level, the sum is surely in the tens of millions of dollars. But don’t
expect funding to be cut. A constituency, however small, has been built. Beneficiaries
-- e.g., employees, investors, consultants, and researchers -- have grown
accustomed to the largesse. They’ll keep the pressure on to maintain the status
quo, regardless of meager performance, while oblivious taxpayers supply the
Will MHK, one
day, cheaply generate electricity? The only honest response is: Who knows? In
1988, a Sandia
National Laboratories scientist told Newsweek
that “photovoltaics will make a serious contribution to the energy needs of the
1990s.” In 2011, according to federal statisticians, solar generated 0.047
percent of the nation’s electricity. America’s oil and natural-gas industries are
booming, but few predicted the fracking phenomenon. Until just recently, “experts” were
convinced that nuclear power would make a comeback. Now, existing
reactors are being shuttered, and proposed
stations are being canceled.
coalescence of technical and economic factors could make MHK flourish within a decade
or three. (Assuming, of course, that NIMBYism is
defeated.) But if infeasibility is certain, every penny of Washington assistance is wasted. And if
money can be made from ocean-borne electricity,
why is government involved at all?
revolutions belong in the hands of dreamers, tinkerers, engineers, and venture
capitalists -- not under the thumbs of politicians and bureaucrats.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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