Update: FBI Visits Home of California Solar Couple Who Gave Generators to Phoenix

A California solar company can't wait to give solar energy away to Phoenix.
A California solar company can't wait to give solar energy away to Phoenix. Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times
Update, December 20:

This story has taken an unexpected turn. The Sacramento field office for the Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed Thursday that it executed warrants on Tuesday at the address of the Carpoffs’ home in Martinez, California. It said it could not provide more details.

The fate of the three DC Solar companies is unclear, but calls to the main line for DC Solar Solutions led to a loop of recorded messages saying that system operators could not be reached. Jeff Carpoff’s direct line went straight to his voicemail box, which was full.

Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Brandon Spencer, director of project development for the DC Solar companies in Phoenix, said he was “on the golf course right now” and that the company was “closed for the holidays.” Asked about the FBI activity, he said he was not authorized to speak to the press. Spencer has been DC Solar Freedom’s lead in coordinating with the city of Phoenix to distribute trailers.

Mark Hartman, chief sustainability officer for the city of Phoenix, called the FBI raid “a complete surprise.” He said that its relevance to the city wasn’t clear, because what the warrants were for weren’t known. “We don’t actually pay anything for the trailers,” he added.

Check back for updates.

Original story begins here:

If you venture to the very back row of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport's taxi lot, beyond the rows of parked yellow Priuses and the carpeted, roofed prayer area, you will find four Frankensteinian units for charging electric vehicles.

Each unit is a flatbed trailer topped with solar panels that tilt down toward the center of the truck, making a shallow V. The head of the trailer looks like a gas-station hookup, only it dispenses electricity. Each trailer takes up two parking spaces. Their sides are overtaken with a logo that, for now, reads "DC Solar."

click to enlarge You can charge your electric vehicle with this. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN/PHOENIX NEW TIMES
You can charge your electric vehicle with this.
Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times
On a recent Friday afternoon, no one was using any the units. If someone had tried, they would have found that two of them weren’t working anyway.

Danyal Danial, a taxi driver, guessed that the units had appeared about 20 or 25 days earlier. Since then, he’d seen maybe 10 people — taxi drivers or Uber drivers — using them. He would bring his own Chevy Volt here to charge, he said, if the lot weren’t off-limits to unauthorized vehicles.

In recent months, the city of Phoenix has been dropping dozens of new solar-powered gadgets — including electric vehicle chargers, generators, and tower lights — at police stations, in park-and-ride lots, near dog parks, and elsewhere throughout Phoenix. And, should there be a cloudy day, most of the generators have a biodiesel generator for backup.

According to the city’s most recent numbers, it has 87 of these gadgets that fall into three categories. There are the light towers, which have eight LED lights "capable of lighting 1-2 acres for 20 hours," according to a city council report. There are the 220-volt electrical vehicle charging stations, which can charge two cars at a time (and for free!). And there are solar generators, with 120- and 240-volt outlets, which can also be used for backup power.

This is all part of a pilot project rolled out in June with California solar company DC Solar Freedom, according to Mark Hartman, Phoenix’s chief sustainability officer.

“The whole thing is experimental,” he said, describing it as low-risk. “If they only charge vehicles slower than we thought, well, they’re parked there all day at a park-and-ride, so who cares?”

DC Solar Freedom's license agreement with Phoenix allows it to operate trailers on city land or right-of-ways. Hartman said the city was putting these trailers "in strategic places." A list provided by the city says those places include sports complexes, police stations and academies, airports, parks, a museum, and a shooting range. Not all of them, such as the trailers in the airport taxi lot, are accessible to the public.

In its June 2017 report to the city council, Phoenix agreed to pay $1 per generator per year, for a total of $500 over five years. This fall, that amount changed, and DC Solar Freedom is now providing the trailers to Phoenix at no cost.

“They pay us $10 for the license.” Hartman joked. “I don’t know if I’m going send the $10 invoice to them or not.”

In summer 2017, DC Solar Freedom reached out to Phoenix, asking if the city wanted a number of trailers, light towers, and generators. According to the company, one mobile solar generator costs $150,000. By November, a contract was in place; in December 2017, it was signed. In early 2018, the City Council approved of 100 pieces of equipment. In November, it voted to double that number.

Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times
So what's in it for DC Solar Freedom? For one thing, they get to sell advertising space on their trailers. As the city explains, "The mobile solar generators will bear the logo of DC Solar and its partners in accordance with City advertising standards."

Whether or not DC Solar Freedom has successfully sold advertising space on its Phoenix trailers is not entirely clear. In one location that Phoenix New Times visited, trailers advertised only DC Solar, not other companies.

But DC Solar Freedom might dispute the very idea that there was something in it for them — if they were willing to answer questions. A representative of DC Solar Freedom in the Phoenix area responded to New Times' initial request for an interview, then stopped replying to follow-up queries.

The company's FAQ section of its website proclaims, “We love that there is frankly no catch. Our company is dedicated to the environment.” It adds, “We believe having multiple units on each campus serves as a powerful immediate symbol for your institution.”

It explains that it works “through a strategic partner lease arrangement with DC Solar Distribution, Inc., a major clean energy company, and certain businesses that make the socially responsible decision to underwrite the power,” it adds.

Interestingly, that sounds a lot like the language dropped into a report to City Council in early November.

“DC Solar Freedom will cover the full cost of the mobile solar generator of $150,000 each through strategic partner lease arrangements with DC Solar Distribution, Inc., a major clean energy company, and specific businesses that make the socially responsible decision to underwrite the power,” it reads.

The companies DC Solar Freedom and DC Solar Distribution, as well as a third, DC Solar Solutions, have the same owners, Jeff and Paulette Carpoff. DC Solar Distribution and DC Solar Solutions manufacture and lease the solar generators that DC Solar Freedom puts in cities and on campuses.

The Carpoffs, often through their companies, have shown a penchant for community involvement, as well as for gas-guzzling NASCAR events.

In the town of Martinez, California, where the Carpoffs are longtime residents, up until this year you could have skated in the DC Solar Downtown Holiday Ice rink. The company has been the title sponsor since the rink began in 2015, although officials have said that this year there will be no rink, due to concerns over space and, ironically, power costs.

The Carpoffs also own the Martinez Clippers, a professional baseball team.

In 2017, DC Solar Freedom gave Long Beach City College eight electric-vehicle charging stations, five solar-powered light towers, and three solar-power generators. That year, DC Solar Freedom donated 24 charging stations and lights and generators to a university in Ohio, too.

In October 2015, DC Solar sponsored a solar decathlon. Last year, it started putting electric vehicle-charging units around Las Vegas.

Looming over so much generosity is the issue of funding. Supposedly, DC Solar Freedom can give away millions of dollars' worth of equipment because it can sell advertising space on those trailers.

“The approach is similar to YouTube’s advertising model, which provides free videos courtesy of sponsored content,” Carpoff explained, the Las Vegas Sun reported when the trailers arrived there.

The Carpoffs' own finances, however, raise questions. Court records from Contra Costa County, in California, show the Carpoffs have cycled through multiple tax liens and releases from both the state of California and the IRS. In March 2016, the state of California filed a lien against the couple for $3.4 million; it was released in July that year.

More recently, on November 6, the IRS released a lien of $2,441,500 that it filed on August 3 against the Carpoffs. The state of California also filed a lien against the Carpoffs in August, for about $1 million. As of this writing, that lien had not been released. In response to a message seeking comment, Jeff Carpoff asked for time to set up a phone call, then failed to pick up or reply to a follow-up email.

Records with the U.S. Patent and Trade office list Jeff Carpoff as the inventor of a mobile, off-grid solar generator and a light tower.

And now, the Carpoffs' trailers have come to Phoenix.

In 2016, DC Solar inked a two-year agreement with the Phoenix International Raceway to be the title sponsor of the spring NASCAR XFINITY race series.

As part of the deal, DC Solar would put its mobile solar lights and generators throughout the raceway. They’d provide power stations where racegoers could charge phones, put solar light towers near the track, and park electric vehicle charging stations in the parking lot.

“They already sponsor the raceway out in Avondale,” Hartman said. “They actually have all the DC Solar trailers there, charging vehicles."

In November, DC Solar announced that it would continue, for a fourth year, to partner with the auto-racing organization Chip Ganassi Racing.

In a press release, DC Solar said that its investment in NASCAR racing "has helped them to become one of the more recognizable brands both on and around the track."

It has sponsored not only the ISM Raceway in Phoenix but also Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina and Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, along with drivers in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series, to name a few.

On its website, DC Solar Solutions says it "strives to help environmentally conscious consumers and businesses reduce their carbon footprint."
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.