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.
Last month, the refinery closed down, having failed to squeeze even a drop of ethanol out of its pine chips.
The Soperton, Ga., ethanol plant is another blemish on ethanol's already tarnished image, but more broadly, it is cautionary tale about the elusive nature of "green jobs" and the folly of the government's efforts at "investing" -- as President Obama puts it -- in new technologies.
Late in the Bush administration, corn-based ethanol started to get a bad rap. Corn for ethanol was crowding out other crops, and food prices were soaring. Mexicans rioted as tortilla prices spiked. So Bush started talking up "advanced biofuels" including "cellulosic ethanol": roughly, ethanol distilled from plants that were not also food products. Bush mentioned wood chips and switchgrass in two consecutive State of the Union addresses
Georgia politicians saw an opportunity here. "The Saudi Arabia of Pine Trees" became an unofficial state motto among Peach State politicians, and Gov. Sonny Perdue declared, "I'm confident the bioenergy industry and sector is going to be a cornerstone of the new Georgia."
Amid all this hopeful talk by politicians, there were naysayers among the scientists. One Nobel Prize-winning physicist talked to the New York Times about these startups trying to turn logging waste into fuel. "You have to look at starts with a grain of salt, especially starts where they say, 'It's around the corner, and by the way, can you pay half the bill?' "