For all the controversy around state subsidies to biomass companies, in the name of saving logging jobs, there is one bright spot: Maine regulators decided the public deserves a great deal of disclosure every step of the way.
In the case of Stored Solar, which operates two wood-to-energy plants with the help of state subsidies, the scrutiny must ratchet up as it seeks state support for new ventures.
Stored Solar is a new participant in Maine’s tough wood-to-energy industry and its failure to pay back taxes, suppliers and contractors continues to be troubling. We have new concerns as the company seeks more state support for plans that have changed dramatically.
State government should continue its strong record of transparency on subsidies for Stored Solar and not offer more to the company until they settle their debts, rebuild broken trust and prove their mettle to carry out their ambitious plans. It appears the state’s financing agencies are ready to do that.
The company generates electricity by burning wood, called biomass. It’s an impossible business when competing with natural gas generators across New England, but it has a key distinction: the fuel comes from here and supports jobs in Maine’s woods.
It’s reasonable that lawmakers wanted to help the loggers who made emotional pleas to come to their aid. They decided the way to do it was hand up to $13.4 million in subsidies to four wood-to-energy plants over the next two years, rather than helping the loggers more directly.
Learning from past economic development giveaways, lawmakers set employment and wood purchasing goals the companies have to meet in order to collect the full subsidy. That will lessen but not eliminate the blow to taxpayers for promises unfulfilled.
The public attention has shined brightly on the company, as it should, and that alone stands to influence the company’s actions.
That public information has shown us that Stored Solar isn’t doing well. So far, it’s missed out on more subsidies than it’s taken in. If you didn’t like the deal to begin with, the good news is it’s not sucking down public funds. On the other hand, it’s not living up to the Legislature’s goals to keep open a market for loggers.
If there’s other information showing us why the company’s a good bet, we haven’t seen it.
And the company isn’t helping to make that case to the press or local officials. The company failed to show up for a presentation after the annual town meeting Jonesboro, home to one of its plants, in July. The company’s also left West Enfield officials out of the loop.
When it’s taxpayer money on the line, the public deserves better. Like shareholders, taxpayers should get information and the ability to grill company officials about their business.
It appears officials at the Maine Rural Development Authority and the Finance Authority of Maine are prepared to advocate for the public as they offer a carrot to the troubled company. The rural development authority is prepared to give Stored Solar a subsidiary of $500,000 for a shrimp farm, but with several preconditions. They won’t say what those are.
They should include settling the company’s debts with its suppliers, the town of Jonesboro and whomever else it may owe. We expect them to represent taxpayers in that board room and not throw more of our good money after bad.
Meanwhile, the governor and his administration have continued to attend conferences with the principals of Stored Solar, where they’ve shared the types of plans they’ve kept from local officials. They plan to do it again in October in San Francisco.
It appears LePage is with them. But perhaps he’s attending as a doting parent would a child’s band performance, to hear the squeaks and squawks and then clap his heart out.
We don’t know, because he won’t comment.
If he’s withholding the tough talk with the press and the public, we hope he’s not sparing it with Stored Solar. And if taxpayers do end up backing more of the company’s ventures, we’ll need more than a glossy brochure.
Maine taxpayers will need proof of a worthwhile investment before more taxpayer money goes to its next venture.