USC biomass bang for your buck


my recent op/ed: Higher Education in South Carolina—Bang for your bucks! The State Newspaper
A couple of weeks ago South Carolina taxpayers discovered that the University of South Carolina (USC) houses its very own Solyndra—a “green” energy initiative that it bobbled in conception, fumbled in execution and which now sits dormant on the USC campus having sucked down tens of millions of public dollars.
USC apparently entered the new century having completed its mission to educate students and therefore decided somewhere in the middle part of the last decade that it needs to be in the energy production business. It therefore contracted with Johnson Controls to build a biomass plant on campus.
USC, according to correspondence with my office, spent over $55 million to build what one of its officials labeled the “cat’s meow” of biomass fuel production plants. News reports indicate that during one two year period it produced steam for only 98 of 534 days. On June 28th 2009, it blew up. Talk about a bang for the taxpayers’ buck.
USC apparently believes its mission similar to that of Duke Energy and Santee Cooper. The problem, of course, is their mission requires your money.
USC told me that, “There were never any state or general funds involved in the transactions. The University’s utility budget is funded from other funds.” For those uninitiated in bureau-speak, this means that the state did not appropriate General Fund money for the flux capacitor, but that USC spent money from another account that, fitting for such a masquerade, is labeled “other funds”.
USC told me that, other funds include “Tuition and Fees”. They also include “State Grants and Contracts” as well as “Sales and Services of Educational Activities”. So, “other funds” include money that parents and students pay ostensibly for education, meals, football tickets, etc, except in this case they paid for what one USC official calls “scrap metal”.
“Other funds” also includes revenue generated by USC from resources paid for with public money. “Sales and Services of Educational Activities” would include revenues from the USC Press whose employees are state employees, i.e. paid with taxpayer dollars. Taxpayer resources fund the activities from which USC collects revenue that went not into lowering tuition or upgrading the cafeteria or dorms but into what the former USC vice-president for finance called “A (expletive) mess with many layers….”
USC officials ensured me that it will net nearly $19 million in savings over the next 15 years if the project goes off as planned, or at least doesn’t blow up again. That may happen, but I doubt it. Moreover, even if it does, why is USC involved at all in an enterprise that they clearly cannot manage and sits nowhere that I can see within the realm of “education”.
My belief is that USC, like much of higher education, sees itself as a sovereign empire. They style themselves, by their own admission, as agents of “economic development”. These institutions engage themselves in all manner of activities aside from education including operating an energy plant—though not effectively—and they, of course, demand your money to do so.
USC itself meddles in several “economic development” activities, and they turn out in similar fashion. The best example, of course, remains Innovista. I previously have written that taxpayers have been forced to donate “$58 million in direct state aid to Innovista. The $58 million in state money has been nearly doubled by local taxpayers. For over $100 million we now have two empty buildings down by the river.”
We recently learned that even the Innovista parking lots are losing money to the tune of $4 million over the previous three years. And four days later, right on cue, the Commission on Higher Education (CHE) proclaimed that, “renewed investment in our higher education institutions in the upcoming year is imperative.”
The same CHE, meanwhile, reports that tuition at USC has risen 138.7% over the preceding decade. The student population over that same period rose only 51%, and the number of full-time instructors rose just over 17%. Outstanding institutional debt, however, rose by more than 166%.
USC (and it by no means stands alone) has gouged the parents, leveraged the taxpayers, and still they want more to throw at boondoggles like Innovista and a biomass plant. The giant sucking sound that you hear is the siphon running from your wallet into the tank at USC.
If your wallet remains full, then you likely will disregard this column. If your wallet, however, feels about like the Mojave Desert, then you may want to let your politicians know that enough is enough.