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Ethics Complaint Against Leading Northwest Solar Advocate

OLYMPIA, Wash. – A Washington state senator has filed a formal ethics complaint against one of the Northwest’s leading solar power advocates. Republican Jim Honeyford accuses Mike Nelson of using his position at Washington State University to help a company he later went to work for. But the solar power advocate in the spotlight vehemently denies the charge.

Mike Nelson has been all about solar energy for more than 30 years. He first went “off-the-grid” in 1976 while living in remote Northeastern Washington. Later he moved to a solar powered barge in Seattle. Today, he resides in a solar house north of Seattle.

For many years, Nelson directed the Northwest Solar Center at Washington State University.

“The purpose of my job at WSU was to move the solar industry forward in the state of Washington. So that’s what I did pretty successfully,” Nelson says.

Two years ago, Nelson retired from WSU to take a job with a Washington-based solar company called Silicon Energy. And that’s where the ethics complaint comes in. State Senator Jim Honeyford accuses Nelson of using his position while at WSU to help Silicon Energy win an important state certification. Honeyford says that deserves scrutiny.

“There were just too many things that just didn’t look right,” Honeyford says.

The state certification said that Silicon Energy’s solar inverter system was “made in Washington.” And that meant its customers would get enhanced rebates. Nelson responds that he recused himself from the certification review of Silicon Energy’s product.

Washington’s Department of Revenue made the certification decision. An agency official wouldn’t say whether Nelson did in fact recuse himself. But he did say the agency has never made a decision on “made in Washington” certification without getting input from the experts at WSU.

The ethics complaint notes that Nelson was the only expert on staff until his replacement was hired. The president of Silicon Energy –- Gary Shaver -– says it was no secret he was recruiting Nelson at the time.

“It was made very public that he was going to be coming to work for Silicon Energy and we didn’t think we were doing anything wrong. Maybe we were naive. But everybody knew about it,” says Shaver.

Nelson’s move from state service to the private sector might have gone unnoticed. But then Washington’s Department of Revenue decided to revisit the decision to grant that “made in Washington” certification to Silicon’s inverter system. Turns out a key component was actually made in Italy.

The company has since changed its manufacturing process so that it still qualifies for the “made in Washington” designation.

As for Mike Nelson, he has since left Silicon Energy and says because of this ethics complaint he has offered to resign his current position at a Shoreline Community College.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

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