Failed energy projects cross U.S. party lines

By Aamer Madhani

USA TODAY

Published: Friday, Oct. 14 2011 10:54 p.m. MDT

Halley Dickey shows Sen. Orrin Hatch one of Raser's portable geothermal plants at a 2008 press conference.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — When green-energy company Raser Technologies broke ground on its geothermal power plant more than three years ago, Sen. Orrin Hatch was there to herald the day as a "turning point" in the country's clean-energy future.

At the ceremony in southern Utah, Raser's chief executive officer thanked Hatch for his steadfast support. Utah's Republican senior senator had previously championed an earlier Raser clean-energy project — the development of an AC induction motor that could be used to power a Hummer that could get 100 miles per gallon. The company's executives would later name the Beaver County facility "the Hatch Plant."

But just a month before the groundbreaking for a plant that was supposed to produce 10 megawatts of zero-emission electricity to be sold to the city of Anaheim, Calif. — and help power Disneyland — Raser was already on shaky ground. The company had $51.2 million in debt and less than $6 million on hand, according to Securities and Exchange Commission records.

It was, as Raser warned investors in its annual report, a company that "may be forced to curtail operations, dispose of assets or seek extended payment terms from our vendors."

Still, Hatch, who has criticized President Barack Obama's support of federal loans to solar panel maker Solyndra, now in bankruptcy court, gushed about the bright future of geothermal energy in the United States and boasted that a new era was being led by one of Utah's own.

"Raser Tech is a company that has consistently pushed the envelope to develop, and bring to market, some of our nation's most advanced concepts in clean energy, and I congratulate this Utah business for being first out of the gate to use the latest technology to convert the earth's natural heat into the world's cleanest energy," Hatch said.

In April, the company that Hatch touted as on the cutting edge filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection — never coming close to producing the 10 megawatts that were projected at the Hatch Plant.

Since Solyndra's collapse, Republican lawmakers have criticized as misguided the Obama administration's attempt to boost the clean-energy industry.

Much of the GOP criticism has centered on the fact that one of Solyndra's top investors was a foundation controlled by a top Democratic fundraiser, and Republican lawmakers have raised questions about why the Department of Energy green-lighted a $535 million loan guarantee despite internal debate about the long-term viability of the California company. Many Republicans — including Hatch — have also questioned whether Solyndra ultimately had a sound business plan that was worthy of U.S. government backing.

But Hatch — who in a Fox News interview last month called the Solyndra collapse a "disgrace" and questioned the administration's decision to "put $535 million into a program that has a poor business plan" — hasn't had much to say about Raser since its collapse. That's although he has met with company officials repeatedly to discuss clean-energy policy since 2004.

Much like Solyndra, Raser Technologies was once one of the darlings of the clean-tech industry, and its collapse was perhaps as dramatic. When the company filed for bankruptcy court protection, it listed $107.8 million in debt and $41.8 million in assets.

In the bankruptcy filings, Raser bore little resemblance to the once-promising clean-energy firm that magazine Fast Company ballyhooed as a hot property in 2009 after it launched the Utah plant.

For years, company officials told investors they would be able to turn the relatively low-temperature geothermal waters under the Hatch Plant into electricity by using small generators. Raser even had plans to develop seven more sites in the United States and said it would be producing more than 600 megawatts within five years.

So far, however, Raser, which was renamed Cyrq Energy as part of its bankruptcy reorganization, is producing about 7 megawatts for its lone client. Cyrq Energy did not respond to requests for comment.

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