March 10, 2010

Solar f irm in f inancial hot water

TUX TURKEL

— By

Staff Writer

A Rockland company that recently was awarded more than $575,000 from the state to help build a solar equipment manufacturing plant owes thousands of dollars to contractors and a former employee, and has a mixed track record in designing solar power systems.

Ascendant Energy Co. was one of 16 recipients this month of a matching fund from the Maine Technology Institute, aimed at start-up companies with innovative concepts that have development potential. It was the fifth and most significant state award for Ascendant. It also was a milestone for the owner and chief executive officer, Christopher Straka, who has been working on ideas to boost the efficiency of solar-generated electricity since 2003.

Straka's promise to create 40 well-paying jobs during a recession was welcome by state and city officials. The fact that the proposed Rockland factory would be Maine's first large-scale solar manufacturing facility and support the state's long-term goal of energy independence added to the appeal.

QUESTIONS ARISE

But some members of Maine's solar business community, including two former employees, question whether Straka can deliver on his promise, based on his past performance. They worry that the state's fledgling solar industry, which has been whipsawed recently by volatile oil prices, will suffer bad publicity if Straka's venture fails.

In interviews last week with the Maine Sunday Telegram, Straka acknowledged that his company ran into trouble last fall when the economy collapsed. He was forced to lay off workers and stop paying bills, he said.

But Straka also defended past design shortcomings and other misjudgments as typical of research and development in an evolving field. And he said the partnerships and financing he's lining up now will allow him to grow Ascendant and settle his debts.

''I feel badly that things happened the way they did, but I'm not running away from it,'' Straka said.

Straka formed Ascendant in 2002 after 18 years in computer technology. His impetus was an idea on how to refine the practice of concentrating sunlight to generate electricity and use waste heat to warm water.

After receiving a series of small grants, Straka received a $324,300 development award in 2006 from the Maine Technology Institute to further develop his ''solar cogenerator.'' The concept has since undergone testing at the University of Maine. The concentrator would be one of two products made in Rockland. The other would be a solar-electric, or photovoltatic, panel built without the concentrator.

While conducting research, Straka has been generating revenue by installing conventional solar panels.

Sometimes, he combines research and business.

SYSTEM SHORTCOMINGS

Straka installed a photovoltaic system on an office building at 100 Foden Road in South Portland. The building is owned by East Brown Cow Management, a Portland real estate management company.

The system, which cost $40,000, mates standard photovoltaic panels with reflectors designed to increase power output. It also features a data collection system, so the owner could monitor system performance.

But the monitor didn't function properly, and Straka couldn't fix it. The owner, Tim Soley, wound up hiring ReVision Energy, a Portland solar installer, to evaluate system performance. ReVision found the panels worked to their design capacity, but that the reflectors weren't making any contribution.

That wasn't a complete surprise, Soley said last week. He knew the reflectors were an experiment. Soley said he's most disappointed in not being able to monitor the system, and that -- three years later -- Straka hasn't finished the job.

Soley hasn't soured on solar, though. He wants to buy more panels and boost output, to take advantage of the existing equipment. If so, he said, ReVision -- not Ascendant -- likely would be hired for the job.

For his part, Straka said the project at 100 Foden Road was important for research and development.

''R & D is just that,'' he said. ''You have to learn and discover.''

Ascendant received good publicity last summer when it installed one of the largest solar hot-water arrays in Maine, at Oakhurst Dairy in Portland. The panels cover 2,700 square feet and are working well, saving 7,500 gallons of oil a year, according to Oakhurst.

CONTRACTOR OWED MONEY

But contractors hired by Straka aren't as pleased.

Straka agreed to do the job for $200,000, or roughly $74 a square foot. That's too low for a complex, industrial system, other installers say. A design change that required moving the panel to multiple roofs also increased the cost. Straka said last week that he underbid the project by 25 percent -- or $50,000.

That shortfall left him unable to pay off contractors including Jim Godbout at Godbout Plumbing & Heating in Biddeford. Godbout declined to specify how much Straka owes him, except to say, ''it's a fair amount.''

Straka said he's committed to paying Godbout and wants to hire him on an upcoming installation project.

As money got tight last summer, Ascendant began having cash flow problems. Three former workers who spoke with the Sunday Telegram said they used their personal credit cards to buy materials. All three work in Maine's solar industry, including Ray Montana, who served as installation manager.

''The joke was, the company car was my pickup truck and the company credit card was in my wallet,'' Montana said.

Last September, Straka laid off four key employees, including Greg Dorsey, the project manager. Dorsey said last week that Straka owes him $15,000, and that he is taking legal action to recover the money.

Straka acknowledged that he and Dorsey are involved in a legal matter.

''We're working for a successful resolution,'' Straka said.

Montana and Dorsey said they were surprised earlier this month when they saw a newspaper photo of Straka shaking hands with Gov. John Baldacci, at a ceremony in Augusta for winners of the MTI matching funds. They wondered how a company that owed money and had problems with earlier technology could qualify for $575,408.

Ascendant had requested $2.8 million, according to Betsy Biemann, MTI's president. The company's application was reviewed by outside experts in solar manufacturing. It was evaluated by in-state judges for its relevance to Maine's innovation economy, quality of the management team and other measures. The agency also looked at Ascendant's financial documents.

Based on this scrutiny, the company scored high enough to qualify for $575,408 of the $25 million available. Unless Ascendant was in default, Biemann said, her agency wouldn't know that it owed money.

''The project as laid out in the application was well-vetted,'' Biemann said.

Ascendant must raise nearly $3.9 million in matching money to get the state funds. Straka said he's hoping to get $2 million of the total from private capital. The rest could come from public money, including federal energy department grants and a state development grant the city of Rockland is seeking. He hopes to be manufacturing solar panels in Rockland by the middle of next year.

Money aside, Straka still must refine his technology.

A prototype of his photovoltaic module -- minus the concentrator -- has been installed for a year at Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset. The $50,000 system is making both electricity and hot water as designed, according to Chewonki.

But other experts are skeptical about the commercial viability of Straka's solar cogenerator concept.

Nate Greenleaf is the research and development head at EOS Solar in Rockland, Maine's only solar-thermal manufacturer. He also teaches the state's certification course for solar installers. In Greenleaf's view, the concentrating technology Straka is trying to perfect won't be cost effective, especially in cold climates.

''I really hope Chris can prove me wrong,'' Greenleaf said. ''But the science doesn't support his claims.''

As fuel prices rise again, Greenleaf said, the market is becoming flooded with alternative energy devices that make unrealistic claims. Creating green-energy jobs in Maine is a worthy goal, he said, but if Straka's product fails to meet expectations, that hurts the industry and public's perception of solar.

''Solar is a lot like Star Trek and the Wild West now,'' he said. ''There are no rules, no code. It's a free-for-all.''

Straka responded that he has already identified markets for his products and is working with Spire Corp., a world-class company in Massachusetts that makes turnkey solar assembly lines, to supply what's needed for a Rockland plant.

He also is setting up a management team with global experience in making and selling solar equipment. With the economy improving and new government tax incentives and programs to encourage renewable energy, Straka said he's confident he can line up the financing and top management to open the plant. If all goes as planned, he expects it to generate $25 million in revenue during the first full year.

''We tried to grow last year and had the pedal to the metal when the economy tanked,'' he said. ''This is the time to move forward.''

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

tturkel@pressherald.com

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