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Oct 22nd
The Dark Side of Solar PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky   
December 2010

Local homeowners are rushing to buy solar panels, sometimes at their peril

Solar_1Following the publication of Jim W. Harper’s cover story “Off the Grid” (September 2010), Biscayne Times was flooded with messages responding to the story. “Off the Grid” chronicled the struggles of three local homeowners who attempted to make their dwellings more eco-friendly by utilizing new technologies such as geothermal cooling, rainwater toilets, and solar power.

Among those responding to the story was Upper Eastside resident Brian Wilk, an information technology security specialist who invested more than $55,000 to lessen his reliance on the grid. He installed a solar pool heater, a solar water heater, solar panels on his roof, a solar attic fan, battery backups, and attic insulation. “I have seen my electricity bills drop to the $50-$75 range in the winter to the $150-$190 range in the summer,” Wilk wrote to the BT.

But Wilk also said he was upset that “Off the Grid” had quoted an employee of Electron Solar Energy, a Wynwood-based solar panel company run by CEO Chris Quinn. “I signed a contract in November 2008 and my system wasn’t finished until January 2010,” Wilk stated. “I had to get my attorney involved on two separate occasions to get this project completed, and I almost lost out on the Florida rebates. If I didn’t get my lawyer involved, I would have never completed the project.”

Solar_2Wilk didn’t just turn loose his lawyer on Electron Solar Energy, he tracked down other Electron Solar customers with incomplete systems, at least one disgruntled investor, and three lawsuits filed against the company, including one by a client who uncovered evidence that the company was not licensed to install solar panels. Wilk also discovered that the publicly traded company has stopped submitting federally required financial reports to the Securities Exchange Commission.

Wilk says he wants to warn BT readers. “It was just a really bad experience,” he recounts. “The job should not have taken 13 months to do.”

That may be true, but such delays might be expected in South Florida today, as many companies involved with these new technologies are basically learning on the job.

One of the homeowners profiled in “Off the Grid” was Spike Marro, who has solar panels on his Miami Shores home. Though he’s not familiar with Electron Solar Energy, Marro says he researched local solar-panel companies and found that many lacked the proper licenses. A few even admitted they’d never performed a solar installation.

“They just started up,” says Marro, an executive at Universal Music Group. “California is a much more mature solar market. Here it really is a small market, a brand-new market. It’s really nice that people are starting up [solar companies] in Florida, but I wouldn’t get surgery from a doctor who’s never performed an operation.”

Solar_3In Marro’s case, due diligence paid off. Even with the convoluted permitting and inspection processes, the Hollywood-based company he hired completed work on his home in less than three months.

When the BT caught up with Electron Solar’s Chris Quinn at his two-story office (2801 NW 6th Ave.) facing I-95, he explained that his business grew so fast “things got delayed.” Demand for solar power has been so high that Electron Solar relocated from a small office in the Upper Eastside’s 55th Street Station to their current 27,000-square-foot facility, which sports a neon sign visible from the expressway.

Quinn, who previously owned a battery business, says he got involved with solar panels “by chance” when he was in the Amazon, setting up systems for indigenous tribes. “It’s awesome,” he enthuses. “You take a solar panel, you pay to have it installed, and afterward [the energy] is free…. And it lasts for over 25 years.”

Noting that he has partnered with companies all over the Western Hemisphere, Quinn says he has completed hundreds of projects valued at $3.3 million in the United States, Central America, and South America. Local clients touted on Electron Solar Energy’s website include Camillus House and the Miami Science Museum.

Because of the dismal economy, some clients have been slow to pay, Quinn says. He admits that poor cash flow and a complicated permitting process have held up completion of local projects. But he vows to make good on all his promises or to provide refunds. “This is my life savings,” he says, referring to Electron Solar Energy. “I take this very seriously and no one should get hurt or even bruised.”

Jeff Stone, a paramedic and Coral Gables homeowner, says Quinn already has bruised him financially. Stone hired Electron Solar to install panels on the roof of his 2130-square-foot house soon after meeting Quinn at a 2009 Labor Day home design and remodeling show. Stone says Quinn urged him to pay the $53,160 fee up front, claiming it would allow the work to be done more quickly. But after 12 months of sporadic work, Stone says the electrical hookups remain incomplete and vulnerable to lightning strikes.

Stone also missed the state’s deadline for its solar-panel rebate program, which he had hoped would offset the home equity loan he took out to pay for the work. Now, Stone says, he can’t reach Quinn on his office phone, cell, or e-mail, but did find him at an Electron Solar booth during a recent home show.

“I wanted to just knock him out or scream and shout, but I didn’t,” Stone recalls. “We had a civil conversation. He has a million excuses.” Among Quinn’s excuses, according to Stone, was that Electron Solar itself was owed millions of dollars.

Solar_4_lo-resStone says he received a message from Quinn just three months ago, claiming he would make things right. Since then, however, Stone says he’s been unable to reach him. (Quinn tells the BT that work on Stone’s home is complete, though he did not produce documentation supporting that claim.)

Ken Fields, an investor who also did marketing work for Electron Solar Energy in 2008 and 2009, says the business’s performance has a lot to do with its finances. “The company is in financial trouble,” he asserts. “They are taking deposits from one customer and using it to fulfill a previous customer’s order. Is it illegal? No. Is it bad cash management? Yes. Could it bite him in the ass? Probably.”

Fields says he and his family invested $250,000 in Electron Solar Energy stock via the online, over-the-counter Pink Sheets exchange in January 2009. About that same time, Quinn stopped filing financial reports with the SEC. That resulted in the company’s stock listing -- trading under the symbol ESRG for two cents a share at press time -- carrying an official warning against trading the stock, under threat of prosecution. Fields says his family’s shares in the company now amount to little more than “expensive wallpaper.”

Says Fields: “It’s hard for me to determine whether Chris Quinn is a crook or just an idiot. There is a fine line between the two.”

Replies Quinn: “If Fields wants a refund, I’ll give it to him. I’m not here to fight anyone.”

Quinn also dismisses the Pink Sheets warning as a “rating,” and points out that the stock is still being traded on the unregulated Pink Sheets exchange.

Fields says his attorneys have sent Quinn several letters demanding that he either file Electron Solar Energy’s financial information or step down as CEO. At one point, Fields offered Quinn a head sales position if he would let someone else run the company. Quinn, he says, ignored the offer.

Today Fields thinks it would be cheaper to start a new company than to reorganize Electron Solar. Regardless, he is contemplating suing Quinn “to teach him a lesson.”

Sunwize Technologies, a vendor of solar panels, has already taken Electron Solar to court. Theodore Bayer, attorney for Sunwize Technologies, says Quinn “kept making promises and then breaking them” when it came to paying his client for 68 solar panels. After months of litigation, Bayer finally got the $54,000 owed to his client. Last month they sent the sheriff and movers to impound the contents of Quinn’s office. “He got us a check within an hour and a half,” Bayer says.

Miami-Dade resident James Kushlan also sued Electron Solar for $66,905, a refund for incomplete work on his home. In the course of his litigation, Kushlan’s attorneys discovered that Electron Solar had no electrician’s license or, as his lawsuit states, “any other type of license which would enable them to legally perform their obligations under the contract.”

Quinn says the Kushlan suit was settled, and indeed court records confirm an August 2010 settlement date. But when the BT inquired about the lack of proper licenses, Quinn answered that he had “many different companies in many different states,” but was too busy to go into details.

Electron Solar Energy is a Nevada-registered corporation, while another Quinn company, Electron Industries, is based in Florida. A search of Florida state records shows a pending license for Quinn Development Services, but no licenses for other South Florida companies registered to Christopher P. Quinn. A general-contracting license featured on Electron Solar’s website belongs to Deerfield-based Zinda Development Inc. Its owner, Chad Allen Zinda, did not respond to the BT by deadline.

Fields says Quinn subcontracts with companies licensed for roofing, electrical, and solar work, but he would also try to perform the jobs himself -- a detail supported by Brian Wilk, Jeff Stone, and a southwest Miami-Dade homeowner who wishes to remain anonymous. All three say Quinn often appeared confused or, as the anonymous former client put it, “in over his head.” (That homeowner, who paid $100,000 up front to Electron Solar but had to hire outside contractors to complete the work, says Quinn recently issued a small refund and has promised future payments.)

Wilk, whose home is now humming along using the sun for power, does not regret going solar, despite the many problems he faced. In fact he encourages others to do the same. “I don’t want my experience,” he says, “to scare other people from taking the plunge and going green.”

 

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