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Solar Energy: No Pot of Gold if it Rains All the Time

[fa icon="calendar"] Apr 27, 2011 1:37:01 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

by Carol Pierson Holding


Here’s a good one: where would you put the largest solar installation in the country? How about…the Cascade Mountains in Washington State!! Ha ha, get it? Near Seattle, as in always-rains-in-Seattle? Fewest sunny days? Way way up north?

If you still don’t get it, check out the solar maps below. Who in their right mind would locate the
country’s – if not the world’s - largest solar energy reserve in the Pacific Northwest? The state doesn’t even have environmental impact guidelines for solar projects, like it does for wind.

World Solar Map (1)

Picture 8 The only reason you’d build solar here is if you could make a lot of money.

So yes, the largest solar project in the country, if not the world, is planned for Central Washington’s western Kittitas County. The Teanaway Solar Reserve (TSR) would cover 1.5 square miles in the foothills of the Cascades.  The 400,000 photovoltaic panels could generate enough megawatts to run 45,000 homes.

TSR put together a compelling case. Senator Maria Cantwell was a champion. The Kittitas County State Representative Bill Hinkle was thrilled.

“This project exemplifies what many of us have dreamed of.” Hinkle said. “It presents Kittitas County with an opportunity to bring in family-wage jobs, diversify our energy portfolio and get in on the front end of renewable solar energy. This is clearly a future trend and I feel blessed that, of all the places this project could have been located, it’s coming to us.”

True, the project would be located in Central Washington—not the Seattle side of the mountains. But as renewable energy expert, current Executive Director of the Cascadia Carbon Institute and Kittitas County resident Steve Verhey wrote in his blog, “We're much too far north for reasonable solar energy production. The site is much better for growing trees than growing solar panels.”

Oh yes, the trees . . . a photo in the Seattle Times shows the project’s Managing Director, Howard Trott, standing on the site . . . in front of a bunch of trees.

It turns out that TSR is going to cut down trees to make room for solar panels. Cutting down trees to build solar? Aren’t we planting trees to combat climate change? And what about the wildlife habitat?

Who are these guys?

Follow the money: The project is getting 1/3 of its capital costs, an amount currently estimated to be $100 million, from a Federal solar grant. TSR also gets a sales tax exemption for its construction materials. And credits from the state to induce local utilities to buy its solar, at a price that exceeds other options, including improving existing hydropower plants and buying energy from wind turbines. Talk about a money pot!

But TSR claims that it needs even more government aid and is relying on its partner, Seattle’s premier lobbying firm, Strategies 360, to push though another bill that would double credits for utilities.

It’s an exception even environmentalists are objecting to. And still, TSR might prevail.

TSR is maintaining a low profile, calling itself simply a “privately owned solar company.” So… who are these guys?

Trott, the so-called “financial whiz behind the vision,” is TSR’s frontman, pointing to his 22 years as investment manager for a prominent wireless pioneer.

I went to the TSR web site to find out more, like who on the team had experience in the solar or energy field. The menu options are “What,” “Why,” “Where,” “When" . . . and “Weather?” “Who” is conspicuously absent.

So I started digging. At first, it seemed TSR might be owned by a company called AFLC whose address was listed as Wilson, Wyoming. Wilson is a town known for housing workers for the nearby exclusive resorts of Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson is a second home to Dick Cheney and many other conservative tycoons and Wall Street types who like it because of the gorgeous mountains, fabulous skiing . . .and the fact that there’s no state income tax.

So of course Wilson, WY is not AFLC’s real headquarters. Those are in New York City, at the offices of John M. Rudey, a real estate and timber tycoon. Rudey’s company AFLC (stands for American Forestry Land Company) owns about 45,000 acres of commercial forestland in Central Washington. These forests are in danger of being infested by budworm, a deadly beetle that slays trees in three to five years by eating their new growth. Once a tree is infected, it cannot be processed, so harvesting must be selective to avoid infected trees. As a result timber supply dried up and all wood mills in central Washington closed, making future timber economically infeasible due to high shipping costs.

Even worse for Rudey, Spotted Owls were spotted on his property and endangered species protection was imposed. So AFLC a.k.a. Rudey lost his investment. Unless he can find another use for the land.

Even healthy timber is not as valuable as timberland. Many forestry companies are selling their land to developers, as happened with the now-struggling Suncadia resort on the southern border of AFLC’s land. So, in 2004, Rudey/AFLC came up with plans to build its own development: a 1000+ residential community.

Current residents of the area learned about the plans and objected; Trott and Strategies 360 denied that TSR and AFLC were related; documents and maps submitted by AFLC to county commissioners disappeared; a former Commissioner and a former county staffer now work for AFLC. The outrageous chicanery resulted in a police investigation, but the charges were dropped.

In the meantime, the solar opportunity popped up. Rudey’s land is near major energy transmission lines, a real asset if you’re planning an energy farm. It all came together when Rudey set up TSR and leased AFLC land from himself for the solar project, giving AFLC a new source of income. Rudey’s son Matthew, a former investment banker, founded a company in 2008 called Just Energy, which, predictably, “designs and manages solar electric systems.” Just Energy’s location? Same block in New York as Dad’s AFLC.

Is this late capitalism at it’s worst or a case of a few bad apples spoiling a dream project? I truly hope that Wall Street figures out how to make money off of solar without all the shenanigans. Unfortunately, for now, there is money to be made off the tax-payers for even the most hare-brained solar projects. Maybe those Federal subsidies running out at the end of the year is a good thing. Though it can be brutal, free market capitalism sometimes does work best.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.  

Inset images courtesy of Suneco Green Energy Ltd., Washington Department of Ecology and the Renewable Resource Data Center. 


Topics: John M. Rudey, Teanaway Solar Reserve, solar, Carol Pierson Holding, Cascadia Carbon Institute, Pacific Northwest

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