Owls Head solar energy company, supported by state funds, files for bankruptcy

Posted Aug. 01, 2014, at 11:19 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 01, 2014, at 6:02 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Owls Head-based solar technology company Ascendant Energy has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, seeking to eliminate more than $780,000 in debt including grants and loans from the Maine Technology Institute and investment from the Wiscasset-based Coastal Enterprises Inc.

The company had received nearly $1 million in loans or grants through the Maine Technology Institute, a nonprofit supported with state money, to develop its proprietary solar panel technology and to launch a manufacturing facility it projected in 2009 could provide up to 40 jobs. At that time, the company was pursuing a $5 million manufacturing operation in Rockland that it planned to finance through a mix of private investment and state and federal grants.

The company was also supposed to install solar panels on the Wells Conference Center at the University of Maine by the end of 2010 to provide electricity and hot water for a portion of the building. Dan Demeritt, spokesman for the university system, said those units were never installed. The filings indicate the company owes the university $12,500.

The company also owes $40,000 to Oakhurst Dairy. In 2008, the company had reached a deal with the dairy to provide solar energy systems at 16 of its farms. Plumbers, roofers and law firms are also among the company’s creditors.

Company founder and CEO Chris Straka secured a patent in 2006 for his invention, a device to concentrate and amplify solar energy that is thinner than earlier devices performing the same task. At a 2006 energy conference, the company touted its invention was 37 percent efficient at converting solar energy to electricity, compared with an industry standard of 14 percent.

Researchers in Germany last year reported setting a world record for solar power efficiency using a concentrator system that achieved 44.7 percent efficiency.

Straka did not return a phone call Friday. As the 100 percent shareholder in the company, Straka has declared bankruptcy separately under Chapter 13, allowing reorganization of his debt that will allow him to keep his home in Owl’s Head.

The filing entered in U.S. bankruptcy court Thursday shows the company has $781,957 in liabilities and $1,610 in assets with no property. Most of its debt is to the Maine Technology Institute, which it owes $327,948, and to Coastal Enterprises Inc., which it owes $231,105.

A spokesperson from CEI did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The debt to MTI is primarily from a $324,300 development loan granted in 2006 for development of the company’s solar electric and thermal energy concentrator, according to a tally of awards from the state-supported nonprofit.

Jeffrey White, attorney for the company and Straka, said that there’s unlikely to be any funds distributed from the company.

Scott Burnett, spokesperson for MTI, wrote in an email that the loan was executed and is in progress, but a $575,408 award from the Maine Technology Asset Fund in 2009 was never issued. That award was to support construction of the company’s proposed $5 million production facility. According to the program’s website, it requires award recipients to raise required matching funds within six months to receive the award.

A team from the University of Maine also helped the company research its solar technology.

Burnett wrote that he could not share much information beyond the specific amounts of the awards and project titles because much of the information is confidential.

“I can say that it is very rare that MTI portfolio companies go out of business,” Burnett wrote.

The company also received three grants from MTI, totalling $24,920 to prove its concept, secure a patent and build and certify its product.

For startup companies, the period of time between research and development and getting to mass production and sales is referred as the “valley of death.” Bloomberg reported in 2010 that the recession left many startups in the lurch, particularly in clean-technology industries like solar energy. At that time, Bloomberg data showed venture capital and private equity firms had put about $49.3 billion into solar, wind and other alternative energy investments from 2000 to 2010, with investors pushing back timelines for recovering their investments by more than a year.

Ascendant last made news in 2010, when it faced a number of lawsuits from creditors. Straka at the time said the company’s troubles were in part because of a bad economy. The company was listed as a property taxpayer in Rockland in 2011, in an office at 313 Main St., but not listed in 2012 or 2013.

State records show the company was current on annual filings until this year. It missed a June filing deadline.

According to the bankruptcy filings, the company owes tens of thousands of dollars to area contractors, including $52,286 to Jim Godbout Plumbing & Heating Inc. in Biddeford and $28,402 to G&E Roofing Co. Inc. in Augusta.

The company lists its assets as one laptop and one printer valued at $500, 6-year-old solar modules valued at $600, and hand tools and battery tools valued at $500.

In the related personal bankruptcy case, Straka and his attorney submitted Thursday a payment plan for the mortgage and a lien Coastal Enterprises Inc. has on the home he owns jointly with his wife. That plan calls for Straka to pay out $600 per month for 54 months to a bankruptcy trustee, who would then make payments on a car loan, lenders holding the home mortgage and Coastal Enterprises Inc.

 

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