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POLITICS

The Solyndra of woodchips is liquidated

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Timothy P. Carney

You could call it George W. Bush's Solyndra.

Instead of claiming to turn cylindrical solar cells into energy, Range Fuels said it would squeeze fuel out of woodchips. Late last week, we learned the government was liquidating this failed, heavily subsidized undertaking.

Bloomberg News reports:

Range Fuels Inc., a cellulosic ethanol company backed by as much as $156 million in U.S. loans and grants from President George W. Bush’s administration, is being forced by the government to liquidate its only factory after failing to produce the fuel.

The closely held company, which counts Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist and Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder, as an initial investor, shuttered the factory in Soperton, Georgia, in January after not delivering on its promise to convert woodchips into ethanol, which was intended to help the U.S. become less dependent on foreign oil.

I reported a year ago that the plant was shuttering its doors before producing a single drop of ethanol. It spent the last ten months trying to right itself before its federal patrons, the Agriculture and Energy Departments shouted last week "Shut It Down!"

On Range Fuels' subsidies:

To turn wood chips into ethanol fuel, George W. Bush's Department of Energy in February 2007 announced a $76 million grant to Range Fuels for a cutting-edge refinery. A few months later, the refinery opened in the piney woods of Treutlen County, Ga., as the taxpayers of Georgia piled on another $6 million. In 2008, the ethanol plant was the first beneficiary of the Biorefinery Assistance Program, pocketing a loan for $80 million guaranteed by the U.S. taxpayers.

On its political connections:

Range Fuels is a politically connected, mostly through its founder, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Khosla has given more the $350,000 to federal candidates and campaign committees in recent years, a vast majority going to Democrats. In his home state of California, Khosla has famously and openly bankrolled ballot measures to direct state funding to his own "green" ventures or use regulation to make his investments more valuable.

Range Fuels' lobbying budget is small, having spent only about $50,000 over the past three years. Their lobbyists have been former top staffers for powerful Democratic Sens. Patty Murray, Ron Wyden, and Max Baucus.

Despite these Democratic ties, it's been Republicans who have lathered the subsidies on Soperton and celebrated them -- Gov. Perdue, President Bush, Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss. On the GOP side, Range Fuels' most politically connected asset may be the aptly named Pat Wood. Wood is a revolving-door veteran -- he's the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, having won that job on the recommendation of then-Enron Chairman Ken Lay.

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