It's safe to say that Rodman & Rodman's alternative energy practice has deep roots.
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Over the last three decades, the firm has evolved as a specialist in providing accounting services to renewable energy clients. President and managing partner Steve Rodman, whose father started the Newton, Mass.-based firm in 1961, joined the practice in 1980 -- around the same time that the renewable energy sector was just starting to come on the scene in the United States, with technologies such as passive solar. "Through the 1980s, 1990s and on, we became more involved," said Rodman. "Even before green energy became a major focal point of business and politics, we had quite a specialization in the industry."
Three years ago, Rodman thought that it was a good time to focus more closely on their alternative energy clients. With the help of Marc Bane, the firm's outside marketing consultant who specializes in energy technology, Rodman & Rodman agreed to name the platform the "Green Team."
"In order to really concentrate on this niche, we decided to pull focus away from some services we were providing in markets with less growth potential," Rodman explained. The firm began to de-emphasize its services to international talent organizations, for example, and pulled back from doing Massachusetts film tax credit audits to focus on the Green Team.
The team is made up of five professionals from the firm's overall staff of 20. They provide services to biomass, wind and solar farm developers, and clean tech companies, all across the U.S. One of the most important services the Green Team provides to its renewable energy clients is to walk them through the application process of the 1603 Grant Program. The program is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in February 2009. The program reimbursed eligible applicants 30 percent of the cost for installing specific energy assets used in trade or business or for the production of income.
Those who wanted to benefit from the 1603 program had until Oct. 1, 2012, to submit applications for the grant, which expired at the end of 2011. By the end of fiscal year 2011, the Treasury Department had awarded $9.1 billion to about 20,500 projects, and helped to add more than 13.6 gigawatts of renewable energy generation across the country.
Although the 1603 grant has since expired, Kathy Parker, a partner and member of the Green Team, said that there are projects that were safe-harbored beforehand, and those clients still need consulting. "The eligible safe harbor projects do not need to be in service for a few more years," she explained. "Also, some projects that thought they were safe-harbored will come to us to review facts and circumstances to see if their project will qualify for the 1603 grant monies."
Parker's main contribution to the Green Team is to make sure that the firm's renewable energy clients are abreast on the guidelines of the 1603 Grant Program. She assists clients on the application process and conducts audit reports, which can be complex. "I didn't have to go to school, but I did take a lot of continuing education courses and talked to the U.S. Treasury a lot," said Parker. Her work doesn't stop at 1603 applications -- she also provides computer assistance to set up QuickBooks, and she works with investors, consultants and developers. "We provide these services either on a monthly or quarterly basis," said Parker.
NOT EASY BEING GREEN
Thomas Astore, a firm partner and head of the Green Team, said that it takes significant skills to provide services to alternate energy producers. "You have to be knowledgeable about the electric grid industry and the technology," he said, and warned those interested in the field, "Get ready to reach into your pocketbook, because there's a high cost for startup fees, traveling to conferences and becoming a member of one or more renewable energy associations."
The team warns that taking on green energy clients is no walk in the park. "Like any niche, you don't do it unless you can devote a full and continual effort to it," Rodman said, "It's a very difficult industry and you can't just dabble in it."
For those who are not ready to take a complete dive into the alternative energy arena, the Green Team serves as consultants on green projects for other CPA firms that may not have an expertise in the industry. "We have provided advice to CPA firms in understanding and calculating energy credits, tax advice in structuring the entities that will own clean energy assets, and advising on the rules and assisting in completing 1603 project applications," said Astore, noting that the CPA firms hire Rodman & Rodman on a project-by-project basis. "The client remains a client of the CPA firm ... we respect and acknowledge that relationship."
Rodman said that although the firm continues to invest its time in the renewable energy sector, it's not without risk. "The risk to us is that the government support dries up before the technologies are fully cost competitive," said Rodman. "There seems to be less urgency by some people in the government to support renewable energy. A lot of it has to do with today's political environment. There isn't enough direct support."
The running list of renewable energy companies that received funding from the U.S. government and later filed for bankruptcy (think of the high-profile failure of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra) doesn't help the situation either. "It can be expensive to develop technology, so there needs to be government support. But then there's that short-sightedness on the part of politicians," said Astore.
Parker noted that it would be helpful if townships, banks, local governments and communities were educated on the renewable energy industry. "We find that a lot of our clients don't have experience in this area," said Astore.
Rodman & Rodman, which is part of the BDO Alliance network, has access to a number of other firms that are also members. "We have reached out to BDO for Green Team technical resources when we have not had them in house, and to other alliance firms to perform energy development site visits for us," said Astore.
To stay on top of the constant changes in renewable energy, the Green Team works with engineers and lawyers who specialize in the field. Attending networking events and conferences is also on their list of things to do to keep up with the industry.
"Most of the time we are the only accounting firm there," Parker explained.