Snow builds up outside the entrance to Centennial Global, a solar panel maker located in the north end of Kingston. The firm filed for bankruptcy on Monday. Paul Schliesmann/The Whig-Standard
KINGSTON – Kingston’s lone foray into solar panel manufacturing has ended in bankruptcy.
Centennial Global Technology Inc., which received approval for a $600,000 provincial grant in 2011, has walked away from its rented space at 18 St. Remy Place.
The company moved from Montreal to Kingston in 2010 and was lauded by local politicians and the Kingston Economic Development Corporation for its promise to create up to 60 new jobs and give the city a foothold in the burgeoning solar energy industry.
Snowdrifts across the front door of the business remained uncleared this week and the principals with the company – including CEO and founder Ajoy Das – were not answering phone calls or messages.
“They never did move out,” property manager Dave Goldie told the Whig-Standard on Monday. “All the stuff is still there. They filed the final bankruptcy papers today. Whatever is in there will be sold.”
Goldie said Centennial had paid its rent to the end of January but had another year remaining on its lease.
According to the head of Kingston’s economic development commission, Centennial Global was a victim of changes to the province’s Green Energy Act and, most of all, a ruling last year by the World Trade Organization requiring Ontario to reduce its domestic content in solar panels.
Content requirements were 60% when the company moved to Kingston, said KEDCO CEO Jeff Garrah, giving Ontario-based manufacturers a competitive edge.
After the WTO ruling, levels dropped to between 19% and 28%.
“They came to Kingston because of the Green Energy Act,” said Garrah.
Garrah said he last spoke to Das late last year, though not at the factory, and wasn’t aware the company had filed for bankruptcy this week.
“I don’t know their official status at the current time. We are aware over the last few months of some ups and downs,” said Garrah.
“It’s not a surprise that the last few months they were presented with a lot of challenges.”
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment confirmed that Centennial Global received $120,000 in provincial funding – and that the government would investigate recovering any funds that might be owing.
According to a press release from Aug. 4, 2011, the province was making the investment to help the company “expand its solar manufacturing business and create 50 new jobs in Kingston, adding to the 10 new jobs created earlier this year.”
It appears Centennial Global Technology Inc. never lived up to its promise.
As late as last November, an article in Business Elite Canada Magazine described the company as employing 25 staff and having staked out a position as “the leading national solar panel distributor.”
Das highlighted the 25-year warranty on his company’s custom-made panels.
Three months later, no one seems to know exactly when the 20,000-square-foot facility near Hwy. 401 ceased production.
A former employee who moved with the company from Montreal to Kingston was shocked to learn about the bankruptcy – and the $600,000 grant that Centennial Global had secured.
Gordon Terlier, who described himself as “one of the founders” of the company, when it was known originally as Centennial Solar, said the grant must have come through just after he left the company in 2011.
“I didn’t even know that,” said Terlier, who returned to Montreal to work in the solar business for another company. “I did not know we received a grant of $600,000. I’m just so shocked.”
Terlier is still listed on the Industry Canada website as the company’s senior executive for global sales, business development and marketing.
He described Das as a “multi-millionaire” who came to business prominence in Montreal as a restaurant owner.
From there, Terlier said, Das started a successful call centre, also called Centennial, where he made his private fortune.
He then moved into solar panel manufacturing with the help of Sam Myles.
“Sam is a walking genius when it comes to solar,” said Terlier.
“We were innovative. We could do anything. We were the only manufacturer on the planet using four cell technologies.”
According to Terlier, while in Montreal, Centennial Solar had to cancel a large contract with a foreign supplier around 2009.
At the same time, Ontario was offering the 60% domestic content requirements for solar equipment, guaranteeing manufacturers a market.
“To conform to those requirements we had to move the factory,” said Terlier. “When we moved from Montreal to Ontario it was to succeed. It really, really was.”
Terlier said the newly-formed Centennial Global Technology ordered new automated equipment for the Kingston plant in 2011.
But the order was soon cancelled.
“We put a stop on it. It was the same month we moved there,” he told the Whig-Standard.
It wasn’t until about two years later, on May 6, 2013, that the WTO rendered its decision ordering Ontario to lower domestic content requirements for solar technology.
Garrah said Das invested more money in the Kingston factory than he received in grants.
Kingston and most municipalities across Ontario, he said, are frustrated with how solar and wind policies have played out, calling the Green Energy Act “an ongoing soap opera.”
“We were all after solar plants and wind turbine plants,” he recalled.
KEDCO is now reviewing its five-year strategic plan with a greatly reduced emphasis on solar and wind.
“What’s the investment climate out there around green technology? I would say no with solar and wind, but yes with green chemistry,” he said.
The province’s economic development ministry, meantime, is looking into the Centennial Global file.
“As with most EODF projects, a 20% advance payment was made. In this case, $120,000 was disbursed to the company at the start of the project,” spokeswoman Brigitte Marleau wrote in an e-mail.
“There are clawback provisions in the grant agreement to safeguard taxpayer money. The ministry will seek to claw back as much of the grant money as they are owed. At this time, we are not able to comment further on any specifics.”
The Whig-Standard also contacted MPP John Gerretsen’s office where a spokeswoman said they were also seeking further information from the ministry.