Range Fuels is officially done, dead, finito.
After the firm failed to perform, the government pulled the plug, forcing the biofuel company to liquidate its lone factory in order to try to recoup a part of the up to $156 million in U.S. loans and grants the company received. The how and why of Range's failure has been discussed at length, but there's a question more pressing to the industry than the collapse of a single enterprise. If Range Fuels gets billed as another Solyndra, what will the blowback be? Does this spell doom for the Energy Department and USDA's green tech loan programs?
At the heart of it, it looks like Range Fuels vastly overpromised during its initial bid for government funding and never came close to its projected level of cellulosic ethanol production. Robert Rapier, in a prescient column published by Forbes, was already eviscerating Range Fuels for a seeming bait-and-switch in February 2010. He quoted the EPA's update to the Renewable Fuel Standards Program that reduced the 2010 cellulosic ethanol mandate from 100 million gallons to 6.5 million gallons. A big part of that reduction stemmed from Range Fuel's paltry production ramp-up, which left the firm missing estimates by a significant margin.
According to the report, Range Fuels first received a $76 million grant from DOE for a 40 MGY (million gallons per year) wood-based ethanol plant, construction of which started in November 2007. Range picked up another $80 million in a loan guarantee from the USDA in January 2009, which, at the time, seemed to remove any obstacles the firm may have faced on its way to completing construction on its first 10 MGY target phase by the end of 2009.
Phase one start-up at Range's Soperton, GA plant was therefore slated for mid-2010, but with a pair of major caveats. First, that first-phase capacity dropped from 10 MGY to 4 MGY. Even worse, Range planned on starting the plant using methanol catalyst, which left the EPA stating that Range wasn't even expected to produce any qualifying renewable fuel in 2010. The Soperton plant hasn't been operational since January of this year.
Rapier's takeaway was this: “So taxpayers funded a 40 MGY wood-based ethanol plant and they are instead getting a 4 MGY wood-based methanol plant.” That means that “[t]he decision to continue funding Range potentially drained funding away from others who were perhaps more deserving on the technical merits, but less vocal.” Rapier argued that, while failure isn't to be criticized, taxpayer funding like that which Range received absolutely must come with a higher level of accountability.
That sentiment is powerful ammunition for opponents of the loan programs. Range's history of underperforming should have set off more red flags before its collapse. As Rapier famously concluded, “Taxpayers will foot the bill, they will become cynical about biofuels as a result of the many broken promises, and ultimately funding will dry up for everyone in the sector.”
Will the biofuel funding flow really slow to a trickle? That's yet to be seen, but right now it doesn't seem likely. As much as it's likely to be billed as such, Range's shutdown isn't as inherently troublesome as Solyndra's bankruptcy. Solyndra's collapse came after the company renegotiated with the government for more funds after it was already clearly troubled.
While the DOE and USDA didn't do a particularly great job in funding Range's exaggerated claims, and both probably waited longer than they should have before pulling the plug, neither agency threw good money after bad. Politically, the DOE's loan came under the Bush administration, which should help limit the anti-funding political grandstanding that followed the Solyndra ordeal.
Still, it doesn't look so great now that Range received the USDA's first biofuels loan guarantee, and that it was handed out with Obama in the White House, which is sure to draw some fire. But the loan was at least smartly packaged. Portions of the $80 million loan were slated for both the first phase of the plant as well as future phases, which means that some of the funds were likely not released. The USDA at least limited its exposure in that sense.
In the end, it's easy to slam both the DOE and USDA for continuing to prop up a company that consistently didn't perform as advertised. But the Range fiasco isn't anything like the politically twisted Solyndra mess. It would be unfair and unwise to judge either agency's efforts solely on the poor performance of Range when there aren't any signs of any improper political machinations going on. Both loan programs should be judged on their respective ratios of success and on their ability to hit biofuel production targets.
But what Range's failure does highlight is that the agencies must be more wary of overpromising firms -- and must be more quick to pull the plug when those firms underperform.