Questions persist in Winona County's solar controversy

WINONA — The Rochester-based renewable energy company at the heart of Winona County's solar project controversy continues to raise questions about how county officials are handling the situation.

Novel Energy Solutions (NES) issued a two-page press release Friday that calls for further clarification of Winona County's ongoing investigation, which could cost tens of thousands, and lists a series of questions that remain unanswered.

The controversy began months after NES proposed a solar project in January 2013 that it says would have saved the county 30 percent on electricity for zero money down. NES CEO Cliff Kaehler claims that trade-secret financing model was shared with a competitor last fall in a snafu that eventually resulted in Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert, whose wife is employed by NES, and Sustainability Coordinator Anne Morse being placed on paid administrative leave last month.

The county board recently approved the hiring of Lockridge, Grindal, Nauen P.L.L.P. at a cost of up to $295 per hour, with no cap, to investigate the situation.

The new press release from NES calls on the county board to more clearly define its relationship with the metro law firm. Kaehler, who hasn't ruled out a lawsuit, says the law firm should be doing an unbiased investigation and not be eligible to represent the county in any further legal proceedings.


"The investigation will not be fair and unbiased if the law firm is also preparing a defense at the same time as doing the investigation," Kaehler wrote. "This will have a significant impact of how the investigation is conducted and reported."

NES also asks whether the current investigation includes Karin Sonneman, the Winona County Attorney, and "the handling of the project as a whole."

Among the other questions posed are why Morse and Sonneman promoted an "inferior financial proposal" and "purposefully sent" NES's proprietary information to a competitor.

The Winona County Board is scheduled to meet again Tuesday night, but this issue is not currently on the agenda.

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