TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Document trail reveals how ‘green energy’ left S.C. college in the red

The story of the University of South Carolina’s attempts to turn wood chips into too-cheap-to-meter electricity reads like a chapter out of “The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook: Government Contracting Edition.”

According to detailed accounts published over the past two months in the Columbia, S.C., newspaper, The State:

  • The construction of a $20 million biomass power plant got rolled into a pre-existing contract for electricity, without the competitive bids that would normally have been required for a building of that size.
  • The plant was months late in powering up, in part because that sole-bidder construction company failed to apply for the necessary permits.
  • It only worked about once every five days.
  • Oh, and one time, it exploded.

Reporter Wayne Washington’s analysis of 1,816 pages of public documents, many of which The State helpfully republished online to accompany his reporting, makes for a compelling narrative. It illustrates how an inadequately watched public university could get carried away with green-energy exuberance — at one time, USC believed it could derive 85 percent of its electricity needs from a low-polluting power source with plentiful, home-grown fuel — and shovel taxpayer money into what Washington describes as “a money pit.”

While inspection reports and contracts were essential to The State‘s story, what really makes the series come alive is the reporters’ success in obtaining contemporaneous emails from university officials who were watching the now-shuttered Biomass Energy Center crash like the slow-motion replay of a highway pileup. Through this trail of internal correspondence, it becomes clear that administrators harbored substantial doubts about the management of the project for months before its problems became widespread public knowledge:

  • A top USC finance official told the university’s new president in November 2010 that the project, championed by her predecessor, was “the poster child for university governance and planning gone completely off the track.”
  • The following month, the same USC vice president told a colleague that the unreliable plant was a “twenty million dollar travesty … approved by a Board that allowed itself to be sucker punched.
  • In May 2011, an associate vice president at USC told his boss that the administrator in charge of financial oversight was “fed a line of crap that she believed blindly,” and that the plant’s operators “haven’t proved to us that they have done a damn thing.”
It is awfully hard to “humanize” a story about government procurement and renewable energy, but these types of colorful details rescue the story from becoming a dry recitation of figures and keep it focused on the human carelessness and hubris that explain how such mismanagement can happen on such a grand scale.
When working on a research project of this magnitude, it’s important to, first, identify all of the participants who might have had any oversight responsibilities, and then, to hit the agency with a public-records request for their emails as soon as possible. (The request may be directed to the individual administrators themselves, to a central FOI custodian, to the college president, or even to the college’s in-house legal counsel.) Many government agencies have emails set to a default purge of three or four months, making it costly and time-consuming to reconstruct the thread of old conversations — if it is even technologically possible at all — so “freezing” those emails before they disappear can be essential.

Remember also that, if the story is an ongoing one, requests for email correspondence may need to be renewed several times using the most current range of dates. And consider including in the request any emails about the news story itself, to see whether the anticipation of embarrassing disclosures is causing officials to destroy documents, hire lawyers and P.R. consultants, or otherwise circle the wagons.

With more and more states enacting quotas for the use of energy from renewable sources, colleges increasingly will be building alternative-fueld plants, at times using commercially unproven technologies. It is worth starting a newsroom file now about the projected costs and benefits of these ventures, so that future journalists can track how the forecasts match up against reality.