A solar-power systems installer that worked with Solarize Pendleton from its inception went out of business in June, leaving a handful of customers potentially liable for unpaid subcontractors’ bills.

The LiveLight Energy office at 215 S.W. 10th Street is dark and company phones go unanswered. But four property owners in Pendleton who contracted with the Beaverton-based company fear unpaid subcontractors could target them with contractors’ liens to recover their unpaid costs.

Concerned that LiveLight’s sudden insolvency may cloud the success of Solarize Pendleton, the city is seeking a remedy for the property owners’ plight, said Deputy City Attorney Chris Burford. The city, which provides no-interest loans through Solarize Pendleton to pay the upfront cost to install energy-saving solar power systems on city homes, suffers no loss with LiveLight’s collapse, he said. All systems for which the city loaned money have been paid for. Likewise, no property owner that took advantage of the loan program is without an installed solar-power system.

The city made about 60 loans over the past three years, but just four so far this year, said Hilary Lovelace, the Solarize Pendleton coordinator. The East Oregonian used a Solarize Pendleton loan to pay part of the $224,000 cost to install a solar-power array on the building roof at 211 S.E. Byers in October 2011. It paid back the city loan and paid LiveLight in full, said Kathryn Brown, associate publisher and co-owner of the newspaper.

The city created Solarize Pendleton in 2009, loaning up to $9,000 to qualified individual property owners from a debt service fund, the Waste Water Rate Stabilization Fund, to install solar systems. The city placed liens on the properties to insure loan repayment. But property owners qualified for $9,000 each in state and federal tax credits over four years that provided money to repay the loan, Lovelace said.

“Really what the city is doing is helping put the cash up front at the beginning,”?she said.

The city at first contracted solely with LiveLight Energy to work with Solarize Pendleton but in 2012 opened the program to any qualified contractors, she said. Few installers operate in Eastern Oregon, so LiveLight continued as the sole contractor in Pendleton by default, she said.

LiveLight’s collapse caught the city by surprise, she said Thursday.

“We knew things weren’t going well but we didn’t think they were going this badly,” Lovelace said.

The first indication of trouble arrived with a a notice in late June to a property owner from the solar panel maker that it may seek payment for panels it suppled LiveLight, said City Manager Robb Corbett. City authorities said they expected Energy Trust of Oregon to help rescue those four property owners fearing contractor liens.

“The city is expending a lot of effort to try and resolve those issues; we’re working with the energy trust to try and resolve those issues,”?Burford said Thursday.

LiveLight received incentive payments from the energy trust, a private, non-profit agency that channels a portion of ratepayers’ utility charges to firms like LiveLight to bring down the cost of solar power. For each installation, the company received 75 cents per watt, or $3,000 for a typical residental solar installation, said Kacia Brockman, senior solar program manager for Energy Trust of Oregon.

“Our incentives were paid only on completed projects, so a household would have its solar installation functioning,”?said Sue Fletcher, communications and senior customer service manager for the trust. “As soon as we learned of their insolvency, we stopped the incentive payment and terminated them as a trade ally.”

Brockman said Thursday the trust would pay any owed incentives on completed projects but otherwise “we’re in a holding pattern to establish the next steps with any pending payments.”

Corbett said the city hopes the trust can “leverage some kind of resolution” to any demand for payment levied against a participant in Solarize Pendleton by a subcontractor.

Beyond the financial impact to a small number of homeowners, LiveLight Energy's insolvency leaves a poor impression of what is an otherwise successful program, the city manager said.

“I think that this is a program that we’ve promoted and held up as an example for other communities to follow,”?he said Thursday. LiveLight’s unfortunate financial difficulties are “going to smear the program”?and “to some extent, the whole industry,” Corbett said.

“If this happened in any other sector, it would be just another company going under,”?he said.?“But because it’s a previous city relationship with LiveLight and with renewable energy, it’s probably going to take on more significance.”


Contact City Editor Joseph Ditzler at jditzler@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0828.

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