Bredesen invests in solar energy

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Phil Bredesen, who has pushed the recruitment of clean-energy industries as governor, is putting his personal financial muscle behind a private solar energy venture spearheaded by his former revenue commissioner and chief business recruiter, according to a published report.

The Tennessean newspaper reported Thursday that Bredesen, former Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber set up a company called Silicon Ranch Corp.

Documents show the corporation was created Aug. 5 in Delaware with Bredesen listed as chairman, Kisber as president and Farr as vice president and secretary. Farr left the Revenue Department on Sept. 1, and he said he is the company's lone employee.

On Sept. 7 the company filed a certificate of authority with the Tennessee Secretary of State's office to conduct business in Tennessee.

Bredesen's office declined requests for an interview Thursday. But the governor, who leaves office in January, told The Tennessean that he, Farr and Kisber worked to avoid conflicts of interest.

"Reagan was trying to figure out what he wanted to do," Bredesen was quoted saying. "He's somebody that is very sensitive, as am I, to any appearance of a conflict of interest."

He said he told Farr he would have to leave state government before working on the venture.

Bredesen, a multimillionaire, told the Tennessean he was a passive investor and told Farr to avoid dealing with companies that he or the state had sway over.

As governor, Bredesen has made development of clean energy a top priority and through Farr and Kisber has granted large tax and work force training incentives to encourage Wacker Chemical to come to Cleveland and Hemlock Semiconductor Corp. to Clarksville.

Both companies will manufacture polycristalline silicon, the basic material used to create solar panels.

Dick Williams of the government watchdog group Common Cause Tennessee told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Bredesen, Farr and Kisber "may have avoided the letter of the conflict law better than the appearance."

"They kept saying they were trying to avoid the appearance and probably technically they have," Williams said. "But I'm sure a lot of people are going to say, 'Gee, he [Bredesen] put all this effort in solar and sure enough he's investing in it.'"

Farr said that would be unfair. He noted that as an attorney specializing in taxation, "I had plenty of opportunities for very significant salaries to go and represent companies on tax matters in Tennessee before the Department of Revenue, which many former commissioners have done and not a peep has been made."

He said, "Instead, I'm doing something entrepreneurial that could create jobs, wealth and have other positive impacts. It's the least of a conflict of interest."

Farr described the company's business model in broad terms, saying it would seek to develop contracts with private companies across the U.S. interested in having "arrays" of solar power panels generating electricity.

"We're going to develop utility-scale solar arrays in conjunction with strategic partners, and we'll own and operate the arrays on behalf of our strategic partners," Farr said, noting power could be sold to power utilities.

The company would be buying finished photovoltaic material, not the raw material produced by Wacker and Hemlock, Farr said.

"There's just no relationship," Farr said of Wacker and Hemlock. "It doesn't fit at all."

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who is Senate speaker, in an interview asked whether Silicon Ranch would have ties to a five-megawatt solar "farm" planned at a West Tennessee industrial site.

Ramsey and Senate Republicans last year clashed with Bredesen when they pushed plans to cut funding for the site.

The Bredesen administration is using $62.4 million in federal stimulus funding to create the Tennessee Solar Institute, which is focused on basic research, and the West Tennessee Solar Farm. Officials have been hoping a major solar industry company would locate at the site.

Farr said Silicon Ranch would not seek to build the Solar Farm, adding, "we're not doing anything like that. That's ludicrous."

Efforts to contact Kisber were unsuccessful. He told The Tennessean that "I have never traded on relationships or influence from my time in politics or public life."

Farr noted that Bredsen had asked Kisber and himself several years ago to develop a clean-energy "jobs strategy" for Tennessee.

During that process, he said, the two officials saw a "lot of one-off projects on solar deployment, but there didn't seem to be many companies focused on economic deployment of solar technology on a significant scale."

That was worth exploring, Farr said, noting he talked to Bredesen and "he showed an interest in this. There's no one I respect more or think I can learn more from a business sense."

The Times Free Press recently reported that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and FBI were looking into Farr's treatment, while commissioner, of several companies in sales tax investigation. Farr has said he did nothing wrong and welcomes the investigation.