Keeping hydrogen highway clean

By From page A12 | March 30, 2014

Cleaner air, that’s the aim of about $30 million in “hydrogen highway” grants given each year by the California Energy Commission to companies that will build refueling stations for the hydrogen fuel cell cars due to hit the road between now and 2017.

But the commission has had great difficulty keeping its own grant-giving process clean. And trouble may be cropping up again, as the commission gets set to pass out a new batch of grants.

This time, the problem could be a conflict of interest involving a former University of California scientist who said in an online résumé that (while consulting for the commission) he “led the … effort … to develop the … hydrogen station roadmap.” A new company co-founded by that scientist, Tim Brown, apparently now seeks millions of grant dollars, possibly using information he saw when working for the commission.

The recent history of this program clearly implies that no one should be surprised at any ethical problems the commission might blunder into.

Less than two weeks after this column in 2012 exposed a pattern of favoritism and cronyism in grant-giving, the commission pulled back $28 million in awards it had announced.

That year, the tentative grants had gone only to station-builders approved by at least one auto manufacturer and virtually all were earmarked for members of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which charges annual dues of $87,000; the commission is a paying member. As planned, millions of state dollars were to go almost exclusively to billion-dollar corporations approved by other billion-dollar companies. Non-partners also could apply, but with little chance of success.

Energy commissioners changed their rules, but much of the money — from vehicle license fees — ended up with the same companies previously due to get it.

Then, last May, this column exposed the fact that at least one grant handed out in 2013 went to a company proposing to install hydrogen systems in a Beverly Hills gas station — even though the station owner had not agreed to permit the installation.

Now there’s Brown, until January a senior scientist in the Advanced Power and Energy Program at UC Irvine. He left UCI to start and become president of a hydrogen energy firm called First Element Fuel.

Reliable sources say First Element has applied for well over $10 million in hydrogen station grants. The owner of one service station near Marina del Rey confirms First Element contacted him recently, trying to induce him to defect from a letter of intent he previously signed as part of another company’s grant application. Sources say First Element also has contacted other station owners already signed up by others.

The Energy Commission stonewalls on all this, refusing to confirm or deny either that Brown ever consulted for it or that First Element applied for grants. Nor will it say whether Brown had access to other companies’ previous grant applications. The commission refuses even to say whether it would be illegal for one of its former consultants to profit from inside information. For sure, that circumstance would at least convey the impression of corruption.

Tentative new grant awards were to be announced on Friday.

“The Energy Commission does not discuss applications during the screening and scoring process,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “As part of its process, the Commission screens for potential conflicts of interest and takes appropriate action to ensure the integrity of the competitive process.”

But the commission’s record demonstrates any efforts to ensure integrity have been incomplete at best.

Meanwhile, Brown did not return email and telephone messages inquiring about his new company and how it came to try to poach stations already signed up by another grant applicant. His résumé disappeared from First Element’s website after those attempts to reach him, but printouts remain.

The overall picture is of an agency which has had trouble administering a clean program, no matter what it says. Maybe it will do better this time, for if it can’t run a clean program, how can it help clean the state’s air?

— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at [email protected]

Tom Elias

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