Failed energy projects cross U.S. party lines

By Aamer Madhani

USA TODAY

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

Raser's executives also spun off their electric-vehicle division into a new company, Via Motors. Raser founder Kraig Higginson announced in February that he was leaving Raser to focus on his job as Via's CEO. Former Raser directors and executives Alan Perriton and Richard Clayton also joined the newly formed company.

Higginson, Perriton and Clayton did not respond to requests for comment made through Via.

Criticism and silence

Hatch, who was first elected in 1976, would not comment for this report. However, his spokesman, Matthew Harakal, said there is no inconsistency between his criticism of Solyndra and his reluctance to discuss Raser.

Harakal said Hatch's support for Raser's geothermal project — unlike the Obama administration's backing of Solyndra — never included a push for using taxpayer dollars to build the plant.

Raser was eventually awarded a $33 million Treasury Department grant in 2010 for construction of the plant. The company also unsuccessfully applied for money through at least three different Department of Energy loan guarantee programs, according to an SEC filing.

Hatch was not aware of the company's financial difficulties when he took part in the company's groundbreaking ceremony in May 2008, and he was unaware of its applications for any government subsidies, Harakal said. Hatch also attended a second ceremony in November 2008 to celebrate completion of the power plant.

"Showcasing how Utah has a dynamic economy with a tremendous workforce is precisely why Sen. Hatch attended that groundbreaking and meets with Utah business owners across the state," Harakal said. "For Sen. Hatch to talk about a technology that led to the opening of that facility is pretty standard as well."

Hatch is not the only politician who has met with Raser. Former governor Jon Huntsman, now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, signed two clean-energy bills into law at the plant in 2009. Former Republican California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger drove a hybrid Raser Hummer near the state capitol in Sacramento in 2009. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has also met with Raser executives.

The Treasury Department grant was used to pay some of the company's debts, according to a Raser filing with the SEC. But it wasn't enough to keep the company's head above water. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two months after receiving the federal money.

Raser's finances were not a factor in determining its eligibility for the Treasury grant, department spokeswoman Sandra Salstrom said. The program award clean-tech firms grants for building renewable energy facilities.

"It was a blind application process," Salstrom said. "If a project meets the qualifying criteria, then it receives funding."

Longtime backer

While Harakal downplayed Hatch's familiarity with the Raser project, company records and published reports show Hatch has long supported the company's geothermal and automotive projects.

In 2009, Hatch recalled to reporters a serendipitous meeting with Raser executives in 2004 who shared with him their vision of a plug-in vehicle that could get 100 miles per gallon.

Hatch said that the Raser officials — who asked him to back tax incentives for hybrid vehicles — were unaware that he had already been championing legislation for alternative-energy-fueled vehicles for several years. Harakal declined to name which Raser representatives Hatch spoke with in that first meeting.

In January 2005, Hatch wrote on behalf of the company to Edward Wall, the director of the Department of Energy's FreedomCar, a program focused on improving the energy efficiency of cars and trucks. At the time, Hatch had authored a package of tax incentives for alternative-fuel vehicles that was included in 2005 energy bill.

"I have had the goal of lowering the market barriers to the mass production of the best available automotive technologies," Hatch wrote in the letter to Wall obtained by USA Today. "I believe Raser's technology breakthrough will play an important role in achieving this goal."

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