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Learning lessons from Shale City

I’m not a DJ, but I have been known to take requests.

In response to a previous discussion of the “intermittent” nature of wind and solar electrical production, an astute reader suggested I look into the effectiveness of “wave energy” — potentially a nonintermittent source of power.

Curiously, in all the government charts I had consulted for earlier articles, wave energy (i.e. using ocean waves to turn electricity-generating turbines) was never included. I checked online to see if I could find out why.

Google had only a few listings on the topic, primarily associated with The Reedsport Ocean Power Technologies Wave Park. Portland State University’s “Oregon Solutions” conceived of the project in the early 2000s but apparently ran into difficulties. With no explanation, the Oregon Solutions website (https://orsolutions.org/osproject/reedsport-wave-energy) simply assigned the program “completed status.”

My curiosity whetted, I drove to the coast to investigate, and Reedsport City Manager Jonathan Wright filled me in on some of the details.

Reedsport was once a thriving community with five major lumber companies employing the local workforce. One by one, the lumber companies left town, creating an economic void. So the local City Council’s spirits were buoyed when Ocean Power Technologies — with more than $5 million from the state Legislature — proposed Reedsport partner in its experimental wave energy program. The project received approval from Governor Ted Kulongoski in 2006, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2010. However, once scientists began installing the buoys (which kept turbines positioned in the waves), the technology failed.

Reedsport’s economic hopes were dashed on the rocks.

Some of the proponents of the Reedsport experiment retained faith in wave-energy technology. A second team, this time associated with Oregon State University, began drawing up plans for an offshore project, “PacWave,” near Newport. The team is currently in the process of fundraising. Once constructed, private companies will be able to rent PacWave facilities to test the effectiveness of their designs. (http://pacwaveenergy.org/)

Perhaps sometime in the future, thanks to the PacWave test site, an efficacious wave energy system will be up and running. Whether this will be in time to help mitigate Climate Change is anyone’s guess.

Investing in new technologies that promise to solve the world’s problems is known to be risky. Back in the 1920s, a number of Ashlanders were caught up in a similar type of investment scheme involving shale oil.

In the lead-up to the market crash of 1929, speculators around the country were madly digging oil wells, or designing “retorts” to extract petroleum products from crushed shale, in order to fuel America’s growing transportation industry. Some individuals saw large returns on their investments, while others went bust (see Paul Russell’s “History of Western Oil Shale” at https://mountainscholar.org/bitstream/handle/11124/70873/History_West_OilShale.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y)

In 1922, according to a series of oral histories conducted in 1961 by SOU student Wayne Breeze, so-called businessman H.W. Hartman turned up in Ashland bearing a portable, working model of a shale retort that he had designed. Hartman convinced several individuals to support in his vision, and together they formed the Hartman Syndicate.

On the eastern side of Grizzly Peak, where shale deposits were located, the group constructed a 20-family town (Shale City) with a lumber mill and schoolhouse, while workmen assembled a full-scale retort. The machine was completed in 1925 but imploded on its first try. Hartman ran off in disgrace, while remaining members of the Syndicate tried to build a second retort. They also failed, and investors were left with worthless stock and shattered dreams (https://bit.ly/2Ko2h6K).

Viewed with 20/20 hindsight, Ashland may have dodged an environmental bullet. Rusty remnants of Shale City are scattered around the old townsite, located on private property, a half mile shy of the turnoff to the Grizzly Peak hiking trail. Shale City’s legacy primarily resides in the road named after it, which now leads to Willow-Witt Ranch. A further legacy rests in the placement of Dead Indian Memorial Road. The Hartman Syndicate held such sway with city government that the road’s path was carved out of the precipitous hillside, instead of running along Frog Creek, in order to accommodate the mining project.

What is this week’s action point?

Watch the movie “The Music Man” and contemplate how good-hearted, well-meaning townsfolk are taken in by a “professor” who creates unwarranted panic, then offers a solution (for a fee).

Right now, many Ashlanders (myself included) are gravely concerned about climate change. This potentially leaves us vulnerable to smooth-talking scientists, educators, legislators and leaders of nonprofits who ask us to invest our time, hearts and money in their pet projects. Some may be legitimate, offering effective solutions, while others merely mine our fears for personal gain.

Please, readers, be cautious, and hold onto your wallets.

The turn-off to Shale City Road, where investor dreams went bust. Courtesy photo