Solar Energy

Matinee Energy? Power Co-Op Isn't Buying It; Proposed Benson Solar Farm Reportedly too Big for Nearby Lines

Matinee Energy, the Tucson mystery company with ties to two controversial brothers, has plans to build a large-scale, 120-megawatt solar-power plant in Benson.

But even if the firm manages to complete the project, which claims a construction budget "up to the maximum of $444 million," it isn't clear who would purchase the electricity.

It apparently won't be the local power utility, Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative, Inc.

"It's much too big for any of the wires we have," says Jack Blair, spokesman for SSVEC. "We're not buying the electricity."

The nearest transmission line that could handle Matinee's planned output, power officials say, is a 230-kilovolt line run by southern Arizona's Southwest Transmission Cooperative. That high-capacity power line is about 10 miles away.

In theory, Matinee could build 10 miles of new transmission lines to reach that potential tie-in -- a project that, by itself, would be an expensive, multi-year effort.

The power company's statement to New Times comes a week after Matinee and another company, Zentric, Inc., announced details of their partnership in the project that raised even more questions than we had before.

This big-time photovoltaic-panel solar farm will evidently be the first successful project of any kind for either Matinee or Zentric.

The latter firm, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, is a financially shaky, would-be high-tech battery company. Prior to wanting to manufacture batteries, the company was formed in Nevada in 2008 as Constant Environment, which aimed to develop "microclimate" technology to protect valuable artifacts, but has yet to produce anything other than debt.

Matinee, as we explained in our March 6th post, claims to own 15 solar plants -- but refuses to give any details about them, including the locations. While the company hides the sort of information other solar companies brag about, critical articles about two of Matinee's founders, Christopher and Michael Pannos, are easy to find on the Internet.

Christopher Pannos was behind a bogus Arizona gold-mine scheme in the 1980s.

Michael Pannos, called the chairman of Matinee in a 2010 news release, is a former chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party tied to an East Chicago firm that was sued in 2010 by that state's Attorney General's Office.

East Chicago Second Century, shut down last year, "siphoned millions in public casino revenue for which there has been no public accounting," wrote Marc Chase of the Times of Northwest Indiana in an October 2010 article about Pannos' financial problems. The article mentions that Pannos lost a million-dollar home in the Las Vegas area on August 24, 2010, in a foreclosure sale. The address of the home, 5646 Agate Avenue, has been used as an address for Matinee Energy as well as corporations called Matinee Oil and Matinee Development, Flagstaff, LLC.

Pannos is also linked to a trash-to-ethanol scheme proposed for Schneider, Indiana, that has been the subject of criticism and public debate. The ethanol-making plan has some similarities to the ambitious Matinee project in that it has no obvious funding source.

Earlier this month, Matinee spokesman David Lee downplayed the Pannos brothers' role in the company.

Ernie Graves, the Benson landowner hoping to sell hundreds of acres of his ranch property to Matinee for its project, says Matinee appears to be represented by new management, but he believes some sort of internal dispute is going on between the brothers and the company's Asian directors. He continues to believe that Matinee is a credible venture with honest plans to build the solar plants, he says.

Matinee and Zentric's new agreement claims Zentric will build the first 20-megawatt phase of the solar in the next 12 months, expecting to be paid $72 million.

Where that money would come from is unknown. Matinee did not return phone messages this week.

Matinee also claims it will build a 50-acre solar campus in another part of Benson that will house a high-tech solar-power research facility.

One SEC filing states that a Chinese solar-panel manufacturing company based in Australia, Lightway, is a majority owner of Zentric's solar division, Zentric Solar, which has a mailing address in Scottsdale. Lightway did not return repeated calls.

Zentric also has a connection from Down Under -- its president, William Tien, is based in Australia. Its CEO, Jeff Mak, lives in Canada.

We'll be bringing you more details about this fascinating and curious deal, so stay tuned.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.