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Solar firm's problems radiate to customers

When Ben Benokraitis bought a solar-powered water heater for his Baltimore County home two years ago, the installation company told him he'd get about $800 a year in payments to help offset the cost.

That money would come from the sale of three Solar Renewable Energy Credits, or SRECs, his small system would create each year. His solar installer would broker the sales and send him a check.

But instead of the $1,600 he expected in the past two years, Greenspring Energy passed along $225.25 — payment for a single credit — before laying off its workers and locking the doors to its home office in Timonium at the end of January. Now Benokraitis has little hope of earning a cent for the other five credits.

Paul Wittemann, Greenspring's founder and president, confirmed in an email that the company "is not actively in business" but would not answer other questions.

Maryland and other states created the credits as incentive to encourage solar production, requiring electricity suppliers such as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to acquire a certain amount each year.

But, as Benokraitis discovered, there's little SREC regulation and few consumer protections when things go wrong.

"It's the Wild West," said Benokraitis, a retired engineer.

SREC trading operates a bit like a small-scale stock market, with online trading platforms and auctions run by companies. About 170,000 Maryland SRECs were traded last year, many of them sold for between $125 and $200.

Since the credits are state creations, no federal agency oversees SREC trades or market players such as brokers. As a result, these markets don't have the federal consumer protections that are placed on the securities industry, where broker-dealers must safeguard customers' cash and securities, submit to annual examinations and meet capital requirements to ensure they're solvent.

"There's really no regulations that cover renewable-energy credits right now," said Gabriel Phillips, CEO of New York-based GP Renewables & Trading. "They just don't recognize them as a security."

State regulations generally focus on such issues as ensuring that the credits are valid and aren't used more than once, said Natara G. Feller, an attorney who runs the Feller Energy Law Group in New York.

Maryland's Public Service Commission certifies that solar installations are eligible for SRECs, but the agency said its regulatory purview does not include payment problems. It directs such complaints to the state attorney general's office.

Karen S. Straughn, an assistant attorney general who heads the office's mediation unit, said she's heard from Greenspring customers but cautioned that recompense might not be possible.

"If there's no assets, it's difficult to collect," she said.

That may be the situation facing customers of Greenspring Energy, which was recognized in 2011 by Inc. magazine as the nation's fastest-growing privately owned energy company.

The company's last check to workers laid off Jan. 29 bounced, said Jeff Lambert, who was Greenspring's general manager until the firm's remaining 11 employees were let go. That led him to believe there's little or nothing left in Greenspring's accounts.

Lambert said he oversaw sales, not SRECs, and doesn't know the status of credit payments. He also said he's not certain why the business failed. Increasing competition might have played a part, he said, but "it's a booming industry."

"I feel for everyone," he said. "It's really a shame."

The Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland received more than 40 complaints from Greenspring customers in the past year about unpaid SRECs and other issues, said spokeswoman Jody Thomas. Among those is a customer who said Greenspring never passed along a single payment, despite selling 12 SRECs.

Kevin Lucas, director of policy, planning and analysis at the Maryland Energy Administration — an agency responsible for energy programs, not regulatory oversight — said the Greenspring situation is the first time he's heard of SRECs going unpaid. Most brokers and aggregators "have a certain scale and operate in multiple states," he said.

"But it is still an evolving industry," Lucas added. "The solar RECs have only been around in Maryland for about six years."

Solar power isn't the only part of the energy market that's changing quickly. From variable-price electricity contracts to community efforts on renewable energy, customers have more choices about how to get their power — and more ways to run into trouble.

"With these … new products, services coming into the regulatory system, there are these consumer protections that could fall through the cracks or gaps between agencies," said Paula Carmody, who represents residential utility customers as head of Maryland's Office of People's Counsel.

Andy Karetsky, president of Skyview Ventures, a New York business that works in renewable energy, talked to more than 100 frustrated Greenspring customers on a conference call Friday. Last fall, Skyview paid Greenspring to provide future SRECs, but they were never delivered, Karetsky said. He's now in the midst of taking over those SRECs created by Greenspring customers.

Customers can either let Skyview sell their new SRECs or switch to another company that specializes in them, he said. But that won't get customers any money Greenspring may owe them for past trades, he noted.

"What's happened is a black eye for our industry," Karetsky said on the call.

Greenspring — which says on its website that it installed more than 1,800 solar systems since its 2007 beginnings — was a significant local player in solar that handled SRECs on the side. It had 40 employees in 2011 and $10.5 million in revenue the previous year, according to Inc. magazine.

Its apparent demise comes amid strong demand for solar but also major shifts in the market for installation.

While the number of home and business solar installations is booming, more now lease the systems rather than buy them. That allows people to avoid upfront costs while they forgo the benefit — and potential headache — of incentives such as SRECs.

The rapidly growing solar leasing company SolarCity entered the Maryland market three years ago. SolarCity says it has a substantial share of that market now.

Regardless of what happened to Greenspring, its customers want to know what happened to their SREC payments. Some of the BBB complaints involve credits sold as far back as 2012.

"I think it's a widespread problem," said James Strohecker, a Monkton resident who said his last SREC payment from Greenspring came 14 months ago. He said he's owed $2,400 for credits produced since then.

The company's website gives no indication that it's no longer operating, other than a note above the address for its Baltimore County showroom: "THIS OFFICE IS NOW CLOSED."

For now, Benokraitis is in the dark about what happened to his credits.

"I, to some extent, handed it off and trusted them to do what they thought would be right," he said. "But apparently there was very little oversight."

Lee Keshishian, East Coast regional vice president for SolarCity, used to run a local solar company and did some SREC aggregation. He was glad to get out of that side of the business. SolarCity, for its part, rarely handles the sale of SRECs for its customers who own rather than lease.

The vast majority of its customers lease, in any case. Keshishian said the option speaks to the market's increasing sophistication.

"It's making it harder and harder for these smaller shops to operate," he said.

Some companies, such as San Francisco-based SRECTrade, specialize in credit sales and management. SRECTrade customers can monitor their credits, including past sale prices, through online accounts similar to those offered by securities brokerages, said CEO Steven Eisenberg.

Benokraitis said Greenspring offered no such online option. The only way to know whether credits had sold and when payment might arrive was by calling or emailing, he said, and even then he got no clear answers.

He said he tried to determine last year why his payment for 2012 was so much lower than he'd been told to expect, and the company never explained that the check was for only one of his credits.

Greenspring officials told Benokraitis he could expect another check in October — of last year. That money never materialized.

"The last thing I got from the president was a letter that said, 'We're going to get a good price,' " Benokraitis said. "That was in July."

Seth Furches of White Hall said his father was finally able to get his SREC payments from Greenspring a month or two ago after a campaign of complaints online. Michael Furches, who died in February, wrote in one of those complaints that he was owed for more than two years of credits the company had sold.

"It seemed like the company was trying to grow too fast, reach too far, and just wasn't able to keep up," Seth Furches said. "I'm glad my dad was able to get out of it and get paid."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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