Howland ordered to shut down his windmill business; numerous customer complaints lead to action against former state rep
A quasi-state agency has issued a cease-and-desist order against former state Rep. Mark A. Howland and his windmill business for improperly installing wind turbines, and has referred numerous customer complaints to the state Attorney General’s Office.
The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative wrote to Mr. Howland and his WindTech Co. this week because a number of Mr. Howland’s projects have serious problems with substandard construction and a number of windmill towers were erected without seeking local building permits. The collaborative, which oversees the Renewable Energy Trust Fund that pays subsidies to people who use alternative energy like wind and solar power, also chastised Mr. Howland for potentially misrepresenting the benefits of wind power and the availability of subsidies from the collaborative. Three of the towers that Mr. Howland installed have bent, “representing unacceptable safety hazards,” according to the collaborative.
“We are writing to demand that you immediately cease and desist from any further activities,” wrote Philip F. Holohan, deputy executive director and general counsel for the collaborative, in a Jan. 8 letter to Mr. Howland. “Due to the number of complaints and the very serious nature of such complaints, we have notified the Office of Consumer Protection of the attorney general of the commonwealth of Massachusetts of these matters.”
The collaborative has asked that Mr. Howland refund all money to customers whose windmills are not yet installed. The collaborative would like a “complete and detailed response” from Mr. Howland as soon as possible.
Mr. Howland did not return numerous calls from The Standard-Times. As of Friday afternoon, the collaborative had not heard from him, either, and could not confirm whether Mr. Howland had actually read its cease-and-desist letter.
Last night, Mr. Howland’s wife, Bonnie Howland, president of WindTech Co., said: “The Mass. Tech. Collaborative has taken money from everybody on their electric bill and they are doing everything possible not to give people their money back. That’s what this is all about.”
The Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, which administers wind-energy subsidies, is funded by non-municipal electric ratepayers. The average homeowner pays 35 cents a month into the fund.
Mrs. Howland said she and her husband were vacationing in Florida and hadn’t read the cease-and-desist letter.
In addition to the collaborative’s action, the manufacturer of the wind turbines themselves, Bergey Windpower Inc. of Norman, Okla., has suspended Mr. Howland’s dealership and stopped sending Windtech Co. any more wind turbines.
“It wasn’t like he was putting up shoddy stuff and walking away,” Michael Bergey, president of Bergey Windpower, said of Mr. Howland. “It’s not a fraud or deception thing. It’s a well-meaning guy who got in over his head.”
One of the customers most upset by Mr. Howland is Arthur Paswell of Fall River. His 40-foot tower bent slightly in strong winds and had to be taken down.
“I’ve got a $10,000 Weed Whacker lying in my yard right now,” Mr. Paswell said. “It was whipping back and forth pretty badly before Mark came to take it down.”
Mr. Paswell also is battling with local authorities, because Mr. Howland told him he did not require a building permit to put up the tower. Fall River building authorities say otherwise.
Mr. Bergey said his company typically expects its dealers to install and maintain the windmills. Mr. Howland sold the windmill parts and hired subcontractors to build the towers and install the electrical equipment. When Bergey Windpower and the collaborative asked Mr. Howland to become a licensed contractor in Massachusetts, he declined.
A good dealer working with one construction crew could probably handle 10 to 15 installations a year, Mr. Bergey said. Mr. Howland, working without his own crew, took on 80 projects.
The height of the windmills is crucial, Mr. Bergey said. In most cases, Mr. Howland built windmills on towers less than 35 feet high, to avoid filing for variances with local zoning boards. But that left the windmills unable to generate a maximum amount of electricity, Mr. Bergey said.
“You’ve got to get it above the trees,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s like putting a solar (energy) system in the shade.”
The collaborative and Bergey Windpower have launched an effort to address the mistakes and lapses left behind by Mr. Howland. The collaborative has hired a renewable energy expert, The Cadmus Group, to inspect and assess each project. The manufacturer of the wind turbines, Bergey Windpower, has also committed to conducting inspections and forming possible solutions.
David Silvia of Freetown is another dissatisfied customer. Mr. Howland installed two wind turbines on his property, and they are turning, slowly, on 31-foot-high poles.
“He didn’t get a building permit, and now the town is telling us we should have had one, because we can’t get the electrical inspector out without one,” Mr. Silvia said. Without an electrical permit, NStar will not come out to install a meter. As a result, Mr. Silvia is not sure whether he’s saving any money on his investment, which is considerable: $19,000 so far, although he is expecting to receive $8,400 in state subsidies and a tax credit equal to 35 percent of the system’s cost.
“The idea was very promising, but it’s turned into a nightmare,” Mr. Silvia said. Even so, he remains a believer in wind power. “I would wholeheartedly recommend getting one, as long as you learn from our mistakes,” he said.
Elin-Mari Heggland of Dartmouth said she has struggled to get Mr. Howland to finish what he started. She has a large concrete tower base in her backyard, and does not expect to build a windmill on it.
“I have a nice lawn ornament,” she said this week. “I think Mark is in way over his head.” She said she will probably not build a windmill because she cannot get a straight answer on whether it is eligible for a state tax credit, or how much that credit would be. She said Mr. Howland still owes her $250, money that he charged her to write and submit the application for the state windmill subsidy.
But even as some customers are unhappy, others are finally getting their windmills after a long wait. Two of Mr. Howland’s windmills were installed this week, one on a farm in Westport and one at a home in Dartmouth.
Arthur Larrivee, a real estate agent from Dartmouth, has two windmills at his home. He said he is happy with them, but wishes they were 60 feet high instead of 35. “I’ve got to deal with the zoning to get them turning full speed,” he said.
But he said that even at 35 feet, the windmills are working fine and generating electricity. “I’m a happy customer,” he said.
By Aaron Nicodemus, Standard-Times staff writer
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