USC’s biomass plant debacle
How the university’s green dream went bust after three ‘potentially lethal accidents’ and a host of other problems
By WAYNE WASHINGTON (The State Newspaper)
On June 28, 2009, an explosion rocked the biomass-fueled power plant on the campus of the University of South Carolina.
The force of the blast sent a metal panel some 60 feet toward the control office of the plant at Whaley and Sumter streets, according to documents obtained from USC by The State newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request.
No one was hurt, but USC officials were concerned enough about the “potentially lethal accident” that they ordered an independent safety review and, in a strongly worded letter to the company that had built the plant, made it clear that university staff would not be allowed back into the building until the review was completed.
The blast underscored what some USC officials privately grumbled about for years: That the plant has been a $20 million disaster, a money pit that was poorly planned and built by a company that had never constructed such a cutting-edge “green energy” power plant before.
Interviews with USC officials and a spokeswoman for the company as well as a review of more than 1,800 pages of documents show that:
• USC, whose officials touted the plant “as the cat’s meow” before its startup in December 2007, closed it in March of this year after it had been shut down more than three dozen times. In one two-year period, the plant only provided steam – its purpose – on 98 out of 534 days, according to a USC review.
• There was no separate bidding process for the construction of the plant. The firm that built it, Johnson Controls Inc. of Wisconsin, was the only firm that included the construction of a biomass plant as part of its effort to win a competitively bid energy services contract. JCI won that $33.6 million energy services contract, then alone negotiated with USC the added cost of the biomass plant.
• USC paid JCI an additional $19.6 million for the plant. The university was to get its money back in energy savings or payments from JCI. So far, JCI has paid USC $4.3 million because the plant did not perform as promised. As things stand now, USC will recoup its $19.6 million investment by 2020 from payments by JCI.
• Despite a relationship that was, at one point, so acrimonious that USC hired outside legal counsel, the university continues to work with JCI. One option that USC now is considering is putting natural gas-fired turbines in the closed biomass plant to produce power, and JCI may be involved, a USC official says.
• Most substantively, however, the biomass experience led USC to change its structure of governance, giving a reformulated committee of its board of trustees responsibility for overseeing and vetting projects.
Now sitting idle, with spider webs and a thin film of dust replacing a plant’s hard-hat hustle and bustle, the biomass plant stands as a monument to the university’s failed push toward new, “green” technology, inadequate oversight and naïveté, some of its own officials acknowledge in internal documents.
The plant blemishes the legacy of the late Andrew Sorensen, the beloved, bow-tied president who was in charge of USC when the plant was conceived and constructed. And it also raises questions about whether USC’s revised system of oversight will be able to prevent future instances of idealism gone wrong that marred the biomass project from the beginning.
“A (expletive) mess with many layers,” is how William “Ted” Moore, a former USC vice president of finance and planning, described the plant in an email to Ed Walton, USC’s chief financial officer.
In another email, this one to USC president Harris Pastides, who succeeded Sorensen, Moore said: “The value of this thing may be scrap metal.”
That’s not the way JCI sees the project.
“We remain committed to the long-term success of the USC project, and the university has been supportive and appreciative of Johnson Controls’ efforts to fulfill its commitment,” said Karen Conrad, the company’s director of marketing communications.
At least they finally (weeks late) complied with FOIA requests, unlike some public agencies we know:
About this story
More than 1,800 pages of records obtained by The State show the biomass project collapsed into delays, recriminations and frustration.
State senior reporter Wayne Washington requested documents, via the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, concerning USC’s biomass plant on June 29 from the University of South Carolina. That law allows public agencies 15 working days to respond to a request for public information.
University officials responded they would need additional time to fulfill the request. They also said, because USC is getting an increasing number of requests for public information, the university would exercise its legal right to charge for document production and copying.
USC supplied 1,816 pages of documents concerning the $20 million facility to The State Sept. 22, charging $255.80 to provide the information.
h/t to WUWT reader Mike Whaley