One of Australia’s oldest and most successful solar companies has been placed into administration as part of the unfolding legal and financial drama centred around Sydney businessman Bill Papas and his Forum Group of Companies.
Autonomous Energy, which was founded in 2003 and has delivered some of Australia’s largest commercial solar and battery projects to date, has become one of 24 Forum Group companies placed under administration by Mackay Goodwin ahead of a Tuesday creditor’s meeting.
The solar, storage and microgrid specialist was bought by Papas’ sustainable tech outfit, Iugis, in March of this year – an acquisition Papas described at the time as ideal to expand his company’s foray into energy efficiency.
But over the ensuing months, Papas – who is currently in Greece and claims to have tested positive to Coronavirus – would become increasingly embroiled in allegations of a $400 million fraud brought by Westpac and two other banks.
On Thursday this week, the Federal Court ordered that Forum Financial Services, which according to a report in The Australian on Thursday appears to have functioned as a company treasury, be placed into liquidation.
Autonomous Energy founder and former managing director, Mark Gadd, wrote on LinkedIn late on Thursday that it was “the end of an era” for the award-winning company.
“AE has survived a lot – the GFC, the never ending solar-coaster and even Tony Abbot (sic). But not its brand-new owner Bill Papas and the integration with Iugis,” Gadd wrote.
“I’m happy to have been successful in leading the business from its conception in 2003, starting with nothing and in an industry that barely existed, growing organically to its peak in 2018 where we employed over 50 staff plus contractors, trading profitably with revenue over $30mil p.a.,” Gadd added.
“I’m grateful to have had the privilege of leading our team of what I think was the finest group ever to assemble in our industry. Over the years we delivered numerous award-winning projects, saving the environment one solar panel at a time. Coal power stations are now shutting down because of what our industry is achieving.”
A week earlier, in a post he described as “unconventional,” Gadd – who had remained as a strategy consultant to Autonomous Energy – stressed that “no one employed by AE” had done anything wrong.
“Autonomous Energy has always been a company that does everything properly, that never cuts corners, that leads the industry in terms of quality, innovation, safety and integrity,” Gadd wrote.
“We are passionate about this vital transition to 100% renewable energy. I’m hopeful that the company has a bright future with new owners and directors.”
Gadd seemed less hopeful of that outcome this week and said he hoped that administrators ensured all AE staff, contractors and suppliers were paid in full. According to a Financial Review report on Tuesday, Mackay Goodwin had successfully been able to obtain the release of funds to pay wages until July 8 for AE staff.
“Whatever the driving force is behind the Autonomous Energy brand in the future it will be a different one,” Gadd said on Thursday.
“Although the company has struggled over the last few years with new majority owners and management, it is still a good business and a great brand, though this ending has been brutal.”
Among some of its more notable projects over the nearly two decades, Autonomous Energy designed and built an energy microgrid at the South Australian Produce Markets in Adelaide that allowed it to be completely self-sufficient in its energy supply.
As One Step reported, the $10.5 million 2.5MW solar PV array, coupled with 4.2MWh of Tesla battery storage and a 2.5MW onsite diesel generator – at the time the biggest commercial solar installation in the state – was expected to save market stallholders up to $5.5 million over 10 years compared to the then retail power supply offer.
AE also designed, built, operated and maintained the Sydney Markets’ 3.2MW system, rolled out across four separate phases, including 1MW of solar car park shading systems and a 2.2MW rooftop system.