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Founder of Baltimore County solar firm files for bankruptcy

Founder of Baltimore County solar firm files for bankruptcy
Glen Arm, MD--Feb. 20, 2014--Ben Benokraitis stands in front of his home, which has two solar panels on the roof. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The founder of a solar firm once lauded as one of the nation's fastest-growing companies has filed for bankruptcy, citing nearly $4 million in debts and back taxes.

More than 500 former customers of Timonium-based Greenspring Energy are owed money in amounts ranging from less than $100 to several thousand dollars, according to bankruptcy documents. But their chances of being repaid may be slim. Paul Wittemann, Greenspring's founder and former president, claims only about $16,000 in assets.

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Some former customers are furious, including Ben Benokraitis, who filed a complaint with the Maryland attorney general's office. He says he is owed $1,015; bankruptcy documents say he's owed $616.

"It's not fair to the honest business people in Maryland that someone like that can get away with it," said Benokraitis, who bought a solar-powered water heater for his Baltimore County home in 2012. "I think there were a lot of people who were doing this in good faith, and now it's being made a sham of."

Wittemann filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy-law protection in Massachusetts in late November, listing about $3.928 million in debts, including more than $60,000 in federal and state taxes. The debts include thousands to state and local companies, banks and local government agencies.

Wittemann declined to comment through his Massachusetts-based attorney, Leslie F. Su, who also wouldn't comment.

Formed in 2007 after Maryland began allowing the owners of solar energy systems to sell credits based on their output, Greenspring Energy grew quickly, opening offices in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In 2011, it was recognized as the nation's fastest-growing privately owned energy company by Inc. magazine and in 2012 was inducted into Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce's Hall of Fame.

Then last January, employees were laid off and the doors to the company's Timonium offices were locked. The company's business charter was revoked by the state last year.

Part of Greenspring's business included selling its customers' state credits for solar power, called Solar Renewable Energy Credits. The credits and the market for them face little government oversight. Bankruptcy records show Wittemann claims to owe about $459,000 in SRECs to 528 former customers.

Maryland court records show he's also had tens of thousands of dollars in civil claims filed against him in the last couple of years and has faced criminal charges in three counties. A criminal case is pending in Howard County in which he was charged in September with failure to perform a contract and theft of between $10,000 to $100,000. Similar charges filed in Harford County were dropped in December, while he received probation before judgment in October in another failure to perform contract charge in Carroll County.

In the last three years, 32 complaints against Greenspring have been filed with the Maryland attorney general's office.

Another former customer, Andrew Adkins of Glen Arm, was more forgiving. He said the solar installation he got from Greenspring was "outstanding" and didn't fault the company for its financial troubles. The bankruptcy records show he's owed $3,082 in SRECs, but Adkins called it "not a significant amount."

"They did a wonderful job for us," he said. "I think [Wittemann] was a very ethical man and I think it's very unfortunate that this happened."

Tom Kohlerman, a former manager at Greenspring, believes the company "grew too quickly."

"It was a good idea in 2007, it really was," he said. "BGE had deregulated, prices were going up. There were good intentions all around, it just got out of hand."

He added: "It was sad watching it go down."

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Kohlerman has since opened his own business, Blue Sky Solar Services, to provide regular maintenance and service for solar panels. He says he has about 100 former Greenspring customers among his clients.

"A lot of people are pretty pissed off that they lost money," he said. "I don't think it was done maliciously, I just think he got in over his head. Solar is a viable energy source and it's a technology that actually works, and Greenspring going down like that gave a black eye to the industry."

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