President Obama’s 2008 election brought money and emphasis to alternative energy in the United States. For some former lobbyists and politicians, this emphasis became an entrepreneurial opportunity.
A 2009 article in the Sacramento Business Journal reported that former lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante and a former San Diego port commissioner joined Go Green Consultants LLC to partner with solar-panel installers to “reduce school districts’ and other municipalities’ energy bills and dependence on the power grid.”
Political consultant and lobbyist Art Castañares also went into the solar-panel business. Castañares was a former aide to Steve Peace and the consultant behind Cheryl Cox’s 2006 election to mayor of Chula Vista.
In 2008, the San Ysidro School District signed a contract with Castañares’s business, Manzana Energy, which allowed the company to build solar panels on the school sites and sell the electricity generated by the panels.
According to a 2008 Union-Tribune article, the district agreed to buy “all the power the panels generate over 25 years for a flat fee of $18.9 million. Manzana will pay $16 million to buy and install the panels.”
But, no panels have been installed and no power generated. Why not? And why has Manzana (also known as EcoBusiness) filed a lawsuit against the San Ysidro School District for “compensatory damages” that may exceed $17 million?
Castañares says there have been unanticipated problems in getting the panels in place. During a June 18 interview, Castañares said the initial idea was to put Manzana’s panels on school building roofs. However, the company found the roofs would not support the weight of the panels and began to work on designs for alternative locations.
But, by October 2011, the district had had enough. San Ysidro’s attorney, Dan Shinoff, commented, "Since 2008, when the district entered into a contract with the company, the only thing done was to clear a lot for a photo op."
Referring to the same lot, Castañares argues that it rained shortly after his company cleared the four-acre site in 2010. The rain revealed a drainage problem, which delayed the project further.
Castañares said his company has maintained an office in the district since 2009. He can’t understand why the district didn’t come to them to resolve the problems rather than abruptly terminating the contract.
Castañares believes Manzana/Ecobusiness has a strong suit because they were not terminated according to contract language and because, Castañares says, “We have a good law firm that has successfully sued a lot of public agencies.” Castañares added, “We begged them to arbitrate; it makes me sick to have to do this to a school district.”
When asked if Manzana has any solar-generating projects up and running, Castañares said “not yet,” though he is working on one with the YMCA.