The Energy Department held a special auction the other day and nobody came.

Almost nobody. There were, in fact, two bids on the mothballed ethanol plant in Jasper, Tenn. The department acquired the plant when the owners defaulted on a $64 million federally guaranteed loan.The plant was built with public assistance under the Energy Security Act of 1980. The cost was $91 million. It operated, at half-capacity, from 1986 to 1988.

The department advertised for a buyer in several countries. But it took officials less than 15 minutes to reject the two offers: $8.3 million and a pitiful $2.7 million.

For all its environmentally pure intentions to encourage clean fuels, government still hasn't figured out how to defy the market and build up an industry that private business deems too fraught with risk.