United States solar developer Rob Wallace Jr. and government officials have promised that Virgin Islanders will play a leading role in building the Anegada solar grid, and when six graduates of Mr. Wallace’s training programme stood at the contract-signing ceremony on Friday (above), they were cheered on by the crowd. The BVIEC had first announced Mr. Wallace’s contract about 16 months ago following a tender process that departed from the BVIEC’s usual procedures and drew harsh criticism from losing bidders. (Photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

In July 2020, BVI Electricity Corporation officials announced plans to award a contract to build the territory’s first utility-scale solar grid to Power52 Clean Energy Access, an American company whose founder and CEO has faced construction-related lawsuits and fraud allegations in recent years in the United States. 

But the $4.6 million contract wasn’t signed until Friday, when Power52 CEO Rob Wallace Jr. and BVIEC officials gathered at a conference room in the R&R Malone Complex, declaring that a long-promised renewable energy transition would soon be under way and blaming the Covid-19 pandemic for the 16-month delay. 

Repeating a promise often touted by government officials including Premier Andrew Fahie, Mr. Wallace said the project will transform the territory’s energy sector and bring economic opportunities for Virgin Islanders. 

“We are not bringing in folks from [the] United States,” he said. “We are training your young men and women to build the project for your country.” 

While some of the equipment may be sourced from foreign entities, he said the construction force will be composed entirely of “BVI locals.” 

 Anegada goals 

VI leaders have long sought to slash diesel use on Anegada, with the government setting a goal in 2013 of reducing fossil fuel inputs to electricity on the island by 80 percent by 2021. 

This target seemed newly attainable during the BVIEC’s announcement two summers ago, when BVIEC Chairwoman Rosemarie Flax said the grid would likely be completed by the end of this month. 

But by March, Mr. Wallace and the BVIEC were still negotiating a contract, he said that month. The project was further delayed by pandemic-related restrictions that prevented the Power52 team from visiting the construction site and making necessary preparations, Ms. Flax said on Friday.  

Now it is back on track, she added. 

Mr. Wallace said he is expecting to complete construction within a year, though BVIEC General Manager Leroy Abraham cautioned that procuring the necessary materials will be difficult and such challenges could cause delays. 

Junior Minister for Tourism Sharie De Castro attended the ceremony on behalf of Premier Andrew Fahie, who was attending a Cabinet meeting. 

“I look forward to the successful completion of the hybrid renewable energy and battery energy storage system project on Anegada, and to continue the advancement of a greener Virgin Islands,” Ms. De Castro said. 

Behind the scenes 

Before the Friday ceremony, BVIEC officials had been mum on the project since their initial announcement despite reports in the Beacon that Mr. Wallace has been ordered by US courts to pay at least $1.2 million to people who claim he defrauded them, broke his contracts, or failed to pay his bills, as well as more recent allegations that he stiffed the employees of his VI training programme. 

On Friday, BVIEC officials continued their silence on his legal history, with Mr. Abraham declining to comment on the topic and Mr. Wallace dismissing a question about the allegations against him as “noise to take away the joy of the occasion.” 

Nonetheless, Ms. Flax said much work has taken place behind the scenes since her announcement in July 2020. 

Utility engineers have completed the design and procurement of a new “switching station,” a piece of equipment that arrived in the territory in August and is necessary to receive the energy that will be created by the hybrid micro-grid that Power52 will build, Ms. Flax said. 

Ms. De Castro also highlighted government’s initiative to suspend duties on renewable energy products for a two-year period effective July 1 as another way in which Mr. Fahie’s administration has promoted a renewable transition. 

Paraquita Bay project 

And on Monday, the BVIEC began its request-for-quotation process for the construction of a “climate resilient project” in Paraquita Bay, Mr. Abraham said. 

“We have always said that by 2030, the [VI] can be 60 percent green,” Ms. De Castro added, referencing an apparent update to the target set in 2013 that the territory would supply 30 percent of its energy by renewable means by 2023.  

“Today’s contract signing puts this into focus … and shows that transitioning into renewable green energy is important for our people and our environment.” 

Local labour 

Since making his first splash in the VI with the January 2020 announcement of his solar technician training programme at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, Mr. Wallace and politicians including Mr. Fahie have promised that Virgin Islanders will lead this transition. 

This promise was at the heart of the Power52 Caribbean Energy Institute, the HLSCC programme which is currently in limbo after graduating its first cohort in May. 

HLSCC and government officials have heralded the programme as a resounding success, pointing to the 37 graduates who have received credentials from the US National Center for Construction Education and Research, and the 20 who have earned certificates from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.  

Both qualifications are industry standards for workers embarking on solar careers. 

One graduate who has already started such a career is Jevone Demming. 

Following his incarceration at Her Majesty’s Prison, Mr. Demming completed his training in the energy institute and has since started his own business working on residential solar systems across the territory, he said on Friday. 

According to Mr. Abraham, trained solar technicians like Mr. Demming are essential in the effort to bring residential systems into compliance with recently updated legislation. 

“Through the course, we educated our people,” Mr. Abraham said, adding that the territory now has the capacity to“advance” its renewable energy goals. 

Debts and promises 

But not everyone involved with the course has benefited as much as Mr. Demming. 

Anegada residents Kelwyn Lindsay Faulkner and Darrell Ruan Jr. previously told the Beacon that despite attending the course on government scholarships, they fell into debt because of the living expenses associated with essentially relocating to Tortola as they attended classes. 

Before the programme launched, Mr. Fahie and Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley told Messrs. Faulkner and Ruan they would be reimbursed for these costs, but so far these promises have not been kept, Mr. Ruan said on Friday. 

And energy institute instructors Damon Moulden and Kellyann Few, who say they were hired by Mr. Wallace to teach the course and build the solar plant, have claimed they left the territory with thousands of dollars of debts of their own. 

Mr. Moulden and Ms. Few moved to the territory in January expecting to spend at least two years here, but when the first cohort of students graduated in May and their paycheques were late or inadequate, the instructors came to believe that there would never be a second cohort and that they would play no role in building the grid as they had been told. 

About four months after arrival, they bought plane tickets back to Maryland and attempted to restart their lives. 

When Mr. Wallace was asked Friday why Virgin Islanders should feel confident that they will be paid fairly given Mr. Moulden’s and Ms. Few’s allegations, he replied, “All teachers are going to be paid fully.” 

‘Not about me’ 

Including Mr. Demming, six of the 39 energy institute graduates attended the Friday ceremony. When Mr. Wallace called them up to stand in front of the lectern, the crowd cheered them on with a round of applause. 

“This is what the project is about. It’s not about me,” Mr. Wallace said, apparently holding back tears. 

But many of the graduates had first learned about the contract signing only about 13 hours earlier, when Mr. Wallace sent a message to a Caribbean Energy Institute WhatsApp group shortly before 8 p.m. 

“Special Announcement:!! Anegada Solar signing tomorrow at 8:00 … Hope to see you there,” Mr. Wallace wrote, adding, “I am not speaking, ya’ll will. This is ya’lls project.” 

Mr. Demming, however, was the only graduate who spoke at the ceremony.