ELLSWORTH — The biomass firm at the center of statewide financial concerns — Stored Solar, a subsidiary of French multinational Capergy — has become the focus of legislation that would ensure its contractors get paid.
Since early last year, there have been multiple complaints from contractors that Stored Solar, a state-subsidized energy company based in Jonesboro and West Enfield, had not paid its bills. All together, the claims have amounted to between $200,000 and $1.5 million, according to Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.
The bill, introduced earlier this month by Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook County), also recommends that Maine Attorney General Janet Mills investigate the company.
Locally, Hancock forester George Moon sued the company in the fall, citing concerns about repayment.
Contractors have provided an array of products and services to Stored Solar that, they say, for which they have not been paid. In Moon’s case, he provided wood to the facility, which was converted into energy by Stored Solar.
Doran has credited news reports about Moon and others, as well as court cases filed against Stored Solar, with prompting the company to start paying the contractors.
During a hearing in Augusta on the bill, Doran outlined the development of the Stored Solar case.
“I stand before you with reservation and disappointment,” he told the committee reviewing the bill on Feb. 8. He explained how in a previous session of the Legislature, his organization supported the bill that provided funding to the biomass industry. “We are disappointed that we have to be here today to ensure the integrity of the legislation is upheld and will accomplish the goals that were intended.”
Stored Solar took over the two rural biomass plants in 2016 with backing from Maine’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC). In December of that year, Stored Solar took a share of $13.4 million in bailout funds issued by the PUC to ailing biomass companies in the state. Since claims of payment issues first arose, the PUC has been working with the company to address problems and receive regular updates.
In October, the PUC put in place an order that requires Stored Solar to be in “good standing with respect to its payment obligations to its employees, suppliers of in-state biomass and suppliers and contractors providing equipment and services” in order to receive funds from the state.
In early 2018, the biomass firm filed its report to the PUC, and fielded questions about its paperwork, according to PUC spokesman Harry Lanphear. Stored Solar was required to answer their questions by last Thursday.
“Suppliers have had to resort to seeking relief from the courts or speaking publicly to emphasize how important these payments are to their livelihoods. Once these issues were aired publicly or legislation such as this was put forth, corrective action seems to have been taken to repay old debts,” Doran told the committee earlier this month. “However, this type of behavior is not helpful to biomass suppliers and is certainly not what was expected by the Legislature.”
During committee meetings, Stored Solar attorney Bill Hewitt told officials that the company “respectfully opposes” the bill.
“The company has met its obligations to pay its suppliers and is current with regard to its suppliers according to the supplier’s commercial terms,” Hewitt said.
For independent gubernatorial candidate Alan Caron, the Stored Solar case is an example of how Maine taxpayers’ money gets used without a lot of oversight.
“This case is a perfect illustration of how not to do economic development,” Caron said, explaining that he felt the money doesn’t come with strings attached. “We absolutely should do more homework, but we also should not fall in love with everyone who utters the word ‘jobs.’”
Caron, who runs a public relations firm based in Freeport and has a master’s degree in public affairs from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said state officials need to negotiate better for good deals with companies that receive subsidies.
The promise of jobs, he argued, can be where the conversation stops.
“I think that’s the piece that’s been missing; we’re all focused on the goal, rather than focusing on the goal and the result. As a result, we get taken to the cleaners much more often than we ought to,” Caron said. “I think what’s particularly galling here is here’s a company that’s jeopardizing jobs rather than creating them. And the little guy shouldn’t be left holding the bag.”
His plan, outlined in his campaign, is to instill an extra layer of protection for taxpayers. Caron said he thinks there should still be incentives for business in Maine, but he would like to see an agency automatically follow up with every company that receives funding.
“We’re going to have to create a mechanism in state government that actually circles back to people and actually says, ‘Show me the jobs,’” Caron said.