When Alonso Alvarez was bidding for the contract to build the Anegada solar farm in 2020, he felt that something wasn’t right.
The process dragged on longer than usual, and it was managed over email by a consultant hired by the BVI Electricity Corporation, according to Mr. Alvarez, the Mexico-based managing director of HEG Energy.
Eventually, he began to wonder if someone had an inside contact.
“It brings uncertainty if someone has a backchannel communication,” Mr. Alvarez told the Beacon in September 2020. “You should make the process a lot faster so this doesn’t have to happen.”
He wasn’t the only disgruntled bidder.
After the BVIEC announced in July 2020 that the Maryland-based company Power52 Clean Energy Access had won a $4.6 million contract for the project, three of the four losing bidders publicly criticised the highly unusual tender process that led up to the decision.
Nearly three years later, reports released after the Commission of Inquiry are shedding new light on their concerns.
Claude Skelton-Cline — a consultant hand-picked by then-Premier Andrew Fahie a month after the 2019 general election — claimed in the reports that he “sourced” Power52 and met with its representatives before and during the tender process.
Though he stated that many of these meetings addressed a separate topic — a solar training programme planned for H. Lavity Stoutt Community College — he also recommended hiring Power52 for the Anegada project in a report dated four weeks before the BVIEC even requested proposals in October 2019.
Power 52 CEO Rob Wallace Jr. and BVIEC officials later denied many of Mr. Skelton-Cline’s claims in interviews with the auditor general, stating that he didn’t source the company or facilitate discussions with its representatives as he claimed.
But the conflicting stories raise new questions about how, exactly, a small company from Maryland was chosen to build the Virgin Islands’ first utility-scale solar grid.
Mr. Skelton-Cline has been a high-profile figure in VI politics for more than a decade.
In 2008, the Ministry of Education and Culture — then led by Mr. Fahie under a Virgin Islands Party administration — hired him to coordinate a youth programme that was later criticised by government auditors and the COI for costing taxpayers more than half a million dollars with limited results or accountability.
Before the 2011 election, however, Mr. Skelton-Cline joined the National Democratic Party and mounted an unsuccessful run for office. By 2019, he was aligned with the VIP, serving as a party spokesman during that year’s general election campaigns.
The week after the VIP gained power in February 2019, establishing Mr. Fahie as premier, Mr. Skelton-Cline emailed a proposal to the Premier’s Office offering his services as a “chief strategic advisor” with a focus on subject areas including youth empowerment and climate change, according to a report by the auditor general dated Dec. 30, 2022.
He was quickly hired. Between March 2019 and September 2021, Mr. Skelton-Cline was paid $365,650 for a series of three consulting contracts, the auditor general stated.
In periodic progress reports submitted to the Premier’s Office during that time, he indicated that he was making strides on several initiatives, including Power52’s solar ventures.
In the reports, which were included in a COI bundle released after the inquiry concluded, Mr. Skelton-Cline described himself as a liaison between Power52 and the government, reviewing the Anegada proposal and helping complete a solar training curriculum.
Mr. Skelton-Cline’s first report was dated Sept. 13, 2019, a month before the BVIEC announced its request for proposals for the Anegada solar project.
In that report, he claimed to have “sourced” Power52 and stated that he had already “concluded discussions” with the company about its proposal to build a solar farm on Anegada and to launch a training programme at HLSCC to “equip BVIslanders with the necessary skills for this industry.”
He also recommended that the BVIEC “review and sign [a] power purchasing agreement with Power52” for the Anegada project, and stated that he would provide logistical and administrative support for the training programme.
The report added that Power52 had agreed to participate in the government’s 1,000 Jobs in 1,000 Days Programme.
“Power52 is on standby to participate in this programme pending the outcome of an arrangement for power purchase by the BVIEC with respect to Power52’s proposed solar farm on Anegada and the implementation of its training programme at the HLSCC,” the report stated.
Mr. Skelton-Cline also wrote that a draft of the training programme curriculum had already been submitted to the Ministry of Education.
Meetings while tender was ongoing
In the weeks after submitting his first report, Mr. Skelton-Cline continued meeting with Power52 representatives even as the company was bidding for the Anegada solar project, according to his second report, which is dated Jan. 22, 2020.
Those meetings, he stated, focused on preparing for the scheduled launch of Power52’s proposed training programme in early 2020.
The second report didn’t mention any discussions about the Anegada solar tender, but the six meetings it logged were interspersed with key dates in that process.
The first of the six meetings came on Oct. 9, 2019. Two days later, the BVIEC — operating without its board, which had been disbanded about six months earlier — announced a request for proposals on its Facebook page.
Mr. Skelton-Cline reported that he also met with Power52 on Nov. 14 and 15, 2019, approximately a month before the company participated in a mandatory site visit that was held as part of the tender process.
Their next meetings, he stated, came on Jan. 6, 13 and 14, 2020.
The following week — on Jan. 22, the same day Mr. Skelton-Cline submitted his second report — Mr. Fahie and Power52 held a press conference at HLSCC to announce a memorandum of understanding for the job training programme.
That programme, however, stalled, and Power52 continued with the bidding process for the Anegada solar contract.
‘Still in process’
Though Mr. Skelton-Cline’s second report didn’t explicitly mention the Anegada solar plant, it did describe a Power52 effort that was “still in process.”
“This phase represents a power purchase agreement to be signed with BVI Electricity Corporation, the result of which would be clean thermal combustion waste-to-energy facility [sic],” the report stated. “Timeline remains a moving target but with and or [sic] by end of the first quarter of 2020.”
Mr. Skelton-Cline later told the COI that this passage of his report referred to the Anegada solar project, though he didn’t elaborate on how a solar plant would help process waste.
The COI bundle also included six later reports from Mr. Skelton-Cline, dated between March 2020 and Sept. 22, 2021. None of them mentioned Power52, though some included diagrams for an apparent waste management plant with carbon-capture capabilities.
The table of contents of Mr. Skelton-Cline’s September 2021 report lists a section titled “climate change,” but that section was not included in the COI bundle.
Though Mr. Skelton-Cline claimed he was instrumental in bringing Power52 to the territory, other people told a very different story when they were interviewed last year by the Office of the Auditor General, according to the office’s Dec. 30 report on Mr. Skelton-Cline’s contracts.
The auditors — who were acting pursuant to a COI recommendation — said they had sought confirmation from Power52, the BVIEC, HLSCC, and the Ministry of Education and Culture about whether Mr. Skelton-Cline had indeed facilitated discussions about the Anegada project and training programme or submitted a draft curriculum.
“The parties responded unanimously that [Mr. Skelton]-Cline played no role in the Power52 renewable energy initiative,” the audit stated.
It added that Mr. Wallace explicitly told auditors that Mr. Skelton-Cline “was not responsible for sourcing Power52” for the Anegada solar farm proposal and “did not facilitate and conclude discussions” on the proposal or the training programme.
Mr. Skelton-Cline also went unmentioned during a series of interviews that Mr. Wallace gave the Beacon in early 2021.
Asked about the genesis of his VI initiatives, Mr. Wallace said he and his former business partner Ray Lewis, a National Football League Hall-of-Famer, became interested in pursuing solar projects in the VI in 2018 — the year before Mr. Skelton-Cline claimed to have “sourced” the developer.
According to Mr. Wallace, he and Mr. Lewis attended a conference at Necker Island in 2018 and they were eventually introduced to government officials including Mr. Fahie, then the opposition leader, and then-Premier Dr. Orlando Smith. The officials, in turn, introduced Messrs. Wallace and Lewis to HLSCC President Dr. Richard Georges, Mr. Wallace added.
Recounting conversations with Dr. Georges and other HLSCC officials about the training programme, Mr. Wallace said, “The key here would be … our job is to help you set it up; your job is to run with it.”
He added, “If we can make it work here, where the folks who are trained are now building the project, we copy and paste and go to Anguilla and Jamaica and Dominican Republic and so on.”
Mr. Wallace also said he was already working on another solar development planned for Cox Heath when he learned that the BVIEC had begun accepting bids for the Anegada project.
The Cox Heath project hasn’t come to fruition either, and the solar training at HLSCC was delayed until early 2021.
The first cohort of 38 students graduated in May 2021, but the programme was discontinued after that, and two instructors hired by Mr. Wallace claimed they incurred thousands of dollars of debt after he withheld payments.
Meanwhile, after more than a year of delays, BVIEC officials finally signed the Anegada contract with Mr. Wallace in November 2021, and they broke ground together last December with promises to complete the project by November of this year.
However, work at the project site has barely begun, and BVIEC officials have been mum on the way forward since Mr. Wallace filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in February.
Messrs. Skelton-Cline, Smith and Wallace did not respond to requests for comment. BVIEC officials, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Fahie declined to be interviewed.