Range Fuels Out of Money?

It is no secret that I have been a critic of Range Fuels — not necessarily of their technology but of their approach. I won’t rehash all of the issues I have had with the company; in a nutshell I felt they like were making claims that were very unreasonable, and taking in a lot of taxpayer money based on those claims. As a taxpayer and someone very concerned about energy policy, I spoke out on what I felt were serious deficiencies in the way projects get funded; namely that the companies that make the most outrageous claims are too often the ones that get funded.

I also had my critics who insisted that I didn’t know what I was talking about; that Range was doing something unique and remarkable, and that I didn’t understand that some of the money they were spending was for future expansions. An engineer at NREL called my criticisms unfair. The CEO of Range Fuels stated that my information wasdisappointing to say the least and clearly misleading and inaccurate.” One of the engineers involved in the Range project said that my essays demonstrated a “lack of knowledge or understanding of the Range Fuels project.”

Only time will tell if current events mark the beginning of the end for Range, but something appears to be afoot. A few days ago a story in Biofuels Digest indicated that Range Fuels had begun to lay people off. That story was later denounced by Range CEO David Aldous:

David Aldous, CEO of Range Fuels, responded Monday afternoon that “the statement ‘the people who work in Broomfield were told not to come to work (Thursday).’ is not correct,” and said that he was traveling and in meetings during the 76 hours between the Digest’s query and his response. He did not elaborate on the status at Broomfield, but described the initial Digest report as “irresponsible reporting” and added “I planned to give you an update on Soperton but now I have no further comments for you.”

Today comes another story that says that Range is “laying off most of its employees.” This story contains quotes from a key Range advisor (and inventor of the gasifier Range was using) suggesting that in fact all is not well in Georgia:

Range Fuels Plant Needs More Money

SOPERTON,Ga. — A South Georgia plant that turns wood waste into fuel is stopping production right after they make their first batch of ethanol. Range Fuels in Soperton is also laying off most of its employees.

In 2007 the Colorado-based company broke ground on its Georgia facility in the heart of timber country. At the time it was supposed to be the first plant in the country to make so-called “cellulosic ethanol.”

Since then they’ve received 320-million dollars in state, federal and private money. But now they need more.

Range Fuel technical advisor Bud Klepper says this first run of ethanol is part of an agreement with the federal government.

“This run campaign is to demonstrate that facet of the technology and when we’re done doing that then we’ll shut down.”

Klepper says they plan to keep four employees at the plant while they raise more money and work through some technical issues.

This may not yet close the book on Range. They will probably find some additional funding. But I have to wonder who is accountable for the $320 million they have already taken in, or at least the portion that came from taxpayers. What exactly has been accomplished as a result of the money that was spent?

As I indicated in previous stories, I feel like the Range story is a cautionary tale with elements of hubris, incompetence, naivety, and political agencies all too eager to believe the claims they were fed. It provides in my opinion an example of so many things that are wrong with our energy policy — when politics and wishful thinking win out over sound science.

My sincere hope is that Range can salvage something out of this (understand that being a critic is different from hoping they fail) because we need some successes in the biofuel arena. But I hope other companies take heed and are a bit more cautious with their projections, because if we base our energy policy on outrageous projections, we will be staring at a major shortfall of domestic fuel in a few short years.