Stalled solar project prompts inquiries | News, Sports, Jobs

Solar panels sit in a field next to the Bedford County Correctional Facility. The solar panel project has been delayed since 2018. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

Concern over the viability of an array of solar panels outside the Bedford County Correctional Facility grows after an anonymous complainant to a local watchdog group alleged the project had been abandoned, hundreds of uninstalled solar panels appear to be deteriorating in a field.

The plan was to enter into a 25-year contract with RER Energy Group, a renewable energy company based in Reading, to install and operate the system and sell power to the county at a fixed rate.

The solar panel would power the jail, courthouse and library, saving taxpayers between $5.3 and $5.5 million. “over 30 years by significantly reducing the cost of electricity at the prison”, Mirror records said.

The solar panel was expected to produce nearly 2.1 million kilowatt hours per year.

According to Mirror records, Bedford County Jail is the county’s single largest budget item, with electricity payments representing a significant cost.

Weeds grow among the solar panels stored in a field next to the Bedford County Correctional Facility. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

For the 2019 budget, the proposed amount for the prison was $3,394,410 out of $19,424,428 in total spending, according to Mirror records. Bedford County’s proposed budget for 2022 earmarked $4,318,170 for the jail out of $23,422,106 in expenditures.

The project was proposed to Bedford County in early 2018 by RER Energy Group, Bedford County Commissioner Barry Dallara said.

Funding for the $3.3 million project came from private investments and a $900,698 grant awarded in March 2018 by the Commonwealth Financing Authority’s Pennsylvania Solar Power Program, according to Tribune Democrat records. .

The county worked with RER Energy Group to secure the grant, Bedford County’s 2018 annual report says.

The solar project was originally announced in early August 2018 when Bedford Township supervisors approved sending RER Energy’s preliminary development plan to the township engineer to start the approval process, according to Bedford Gazette records. .

At the project’s groundbreaking in December 2018, Bedford County Commissioner Josh Lang said that with the painting “The county will be able to lock in energy costs, saving $100,000 in the first year.”

Similarly, State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Cambria, said the solar panel would have “a huge impact on the county’s economic development,” while State Representative Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, described the project as an investment in good infrastructure.

On December 11, 2018, the Tribune Democrat reported that the project was expected to go live in the spring of 2019, while on December 13, 2018, the Bedford Gazette reported that Lang said the panels were expected to be operational by July 2019.

At the Bedford County Commissioners meeting on August 27, 2019 – a month after the project was completed – someone asked if there was an update on the solar panel installation. According to the minutes of the meeting, Lang said there was “always the logistics for this to happen”, providing no further details.

For the next three years, anyone could walk past Imlertown Road Jail and see the stacks of solar panels sitting in a field – some still tied vertically while others lay flat.

This led a concerned community member to contact the Hollidaysburg Community Watch Group.

After contacting Bedford County Commissioners and RER Energy and receiving no response, the watchdog group sent out a press release saying it had filed a formal complaint with the Pennsylvania Inspector General’s office alleging waste and misuse of taxpayers’ funds. He also alerted the state Department of Community and Economic Development that his $900,698 grant had “apparently wasted.”

“The project stalled long before COVID-19 hit, but the curators still haven’t seen fit to explain what happened,” said Bryan King, the watchdog’s public affairs manager. “There has clearly been a colossal waste of taxpayer resources and a betrayal of public trust.”

Another watchdog member, Richard Latker, said solar panels are not designed to be stored flat.

“We’re pretty sure that by the time these signs go live there will be a significant amount of damage,” said Latker. “It’s a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money.”

When contacted about the matter on Wednesday, Topper expressed concern, saying it was his understanding that there had been delays due to supply chain, the COVID-19 pandemic and permitting the Department of Environmental Protection.

“I certainly want to see these cost-cutting measures realized,” Topper said.

Bedford Township Supervisors Chairman Gregory Crist said he tried to get in touch with the county about what was going on, but didn’t get much response.

While Crist couldn’t say much because the township had his lawyer involved, he admits the signs were still there and he’s sure the boxes had started to deteriorate.

“They are in the open” Christ said. “There’s nothing around them, nothing to keep the elements or the animals out.”

However, Barry Dallara, chairman of the commissioners, insisted that while the wrapping and packaging materials may have deteriorated, the solar panels themselves were not damaged.

“There’s a question about ‘will the panels sit well there? “” he said. “But the panels are designed to withstand the elements for 25 years.”

RER Energy repeatedly assured the marshals that there was nothing wrong with the signs, Dallara said.

When asked why the project has been stalled since 2018, Dallara said design work in 2019 took longer than expected.

“The moment it was done, COVID happened,” said Dalara. “In 2019, COVID came out of nowhere and shut everything down for almost two years.”

In addition to blaming the pandemic, Dallara said DEP clearance, supply chain issues and inflation further hampered the project’s completion.

He now expects the project to be operational within the next seven to ten months.

“It will come to fruition, and it will be over,” said Dalara.

He also pointed out that Bedford County never had — and would never receive — money for the solar panel project. While it said the project beneficiary was RER Energy Group, the DCED clarified that the funding beneficiary was Bedford 58 Solar LLC.

While the Mirror could not reach RER Energy Group for comment, chief clerk Debra Brown said they had a conference call with the commissioners on Wednesday morning and were awaiting news from the company.

The fate of a similar project reported by the Bedford Gazette in December 2018, for which Bedford Borough and RER Energy Group received an $870,000 grant, which would see solar panels built on approximately 5 acres near the processing facility water at Todd Spring Reservoir remains unknown.

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Clifton L. Boyd