Failed Renewable Technologies Are An Expensive Teaching Moment

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LGChem logoA story that went viral over a week ago showed how (non)-workers at a Michigan electric vehicle battery plant, funded through the stimulus by taxpayers, spent their time playing games, reading magazines, watching movies or helping charities like Habitat for Humanity – that is, when they weren’t ‘off-duty’ on their cyclical furloughs.

According to a report by WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, the LG Chem factory in Holland, Mich. – blessed with $151 million from a Department of Energy Recovery Act grant and $100 million from Wolverine State taxpayers – had “yet to ship out a single battery.”

But another local television station discovered some workers doing something else with their paid-but-free time: teaching students about their failed industry. WZZM, the local ABC affiliate, reported that engineers from LG Chem visited a local job training facility called Careerline Tech Center after they were invited by its director, Dave Searles.

“We’re working with LG Chem about future technology that’s coming out,” he told reporter Alex Shabad.

Contrary to the methods apparently taught in journalism schools today, Shabad responded to Searles with the kind of skeptical question that ought to be on the lips of every reporter in the nation whose beat includes any project from President Obama’s alternative energy stimulus initiative. If you ever visit the Recovery.gov Web site, you’d realize that’s pretty much the entire media.

“If a technology is failing,” Shabad asked Searles, “is it still important for students to know about it?”

Searles responded, “I can’t determine what’s failing and what’s not right now.”

So apparently the last four years have taught educators that it doesn’t matter whether what you teach is successful or meaningful. Whether Searles answered with genuine ignorance or willful misleading is irrelevant. The fact that the question was asked, and the verbal shoulder-shrug in response, illustrates why similar questions should be asked repeatedly of advocates for renewable energy, especially President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. For example, media should ask:

·      Eco-activists – “If these technologies are failing, are they really doing anything to accomplish your energy-saving and environmental goals?”

·      Renewable energy business owners – “If your technology is failing, why should taxpayers subsidize it?” Or, “If your technology is failing, why are you still in business? Why don’t you launch a business that delivers something of value?”

·      Political leaders – “If these technologies are failing, why do you continue to waste our money?”

According to Shabad, LG Chem engineers were asked by Searles to come teach his students about electric auto mechanics, engineering and alternative energy. When Shabad asked him whether a company that is failing in its industry should be called upon to teach others, Searles – safely curled up in his programmatic cocoon – answered, “I don't know on their end. I can only attest to what we’re doing here with our program.”

Perhaps Careerline Tech is the kind of educational problem the president and Mitt Romney should have discussed in the second debate, when a student said he was concerned about finding a job after graduation. Perhaps all those degreed alums are returning home to live with mommy and daddy because they’ve been trained or taught “skills” or concepts that are completely useless in the real world.

There is no better example of this than “alternative” energy. Solar and wind energy has been around for hundred of years, yet their viability and dependability are no different than when they first launched. And electric cars (and the infrastructure needed to support them) were around at the beginning of the last century, but they went away because, like today, the technology failed. As Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine explained two years ago, EV recharging at the turn of the century – in some ways – was more efficient.

“If today’s supporters of EVs would dig into the specifications and the sales brochures of early 20th century electric ‘horseless carriages,’ their enthusiasm would quickly disappear,” he wrote. “Fast-charged batteries (to 80 percent capacity in 10 minutes), automated battery swapping stations, public charging poles, load-balancing,… in-wheel motors, regenerative braking: it was all there in the late 1800s or the early 1900s. It did not help (prevent the demise of EVs). Most surprisingly, however, is the seemingly non-existent progress of battery technology (today).”

Nevertheless, despite the lack of technological progress (Shabad would accurately call it “failure”), the Obama administration has poured billions into development of electric vehicles, batteries and charging stations. About $8.5 billion from the Recovery Act was devoted to loan guarantees for the manufacture of electric vehicles, including $1.4 billion for Nissan to build its all-electric Leaf in Tennessee and $5.9 billion for Ford to build electrics at five refurbished plants. As for chargers, companies like GM, Ecotality and Coulomb Technologies have been granted hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy the stations in both homes and public locations – many of which go unused.

And similarly subsidized are the EV battery companies, many of which are inactive (LG Chem) or bankrupt (Ener1 and A123 Systems). In July 2010 the White House announced that LG Chem was the “ninth of nine” new plants to begin construction as part of its $2.4 billion “investment” from taxpayers in advanced batteries and EVs. “Once fully operational,” the administration’s press release said, “the (LG) factory will produce battery cells to support 53,000 Chevy Volts a year.”

Paltry Volt sales (only 16,348 so far this year) are the reason LG’s employees are sitting around playing cards, doing volunteer work and teaching others about their failures. Leaf sales are even worse, which should make everyone wonder how employees at that Tennessee plant we all paid for will spend their time. Maybe the Volunteer State’s charities should get excited.

Having thought about it more, maybe students should be taught about “failed technologies,” to help avoid the mistakes of the past. It should take 10 minutes, tops. No engineers needed, just historians. Then they can spend the rest of their time studying subjects that will actually help them get useful work after they’ve graduated.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.