The BVI Electricity Corporation owes the public an explanation.
Starting in late 2019, the utility used a highly unusual tender process to choose a contractor to build a multimillion-dollar solar plant on Anegada.
The result? Two Virgin Islands firms were sidelined in favour of Power52 Clean Energy Access, a Maryland-based company led by an engineer who has been accused in multiple lawsuits of fraud, debt and other misconduct.
After the $4.6 million contract was awarded, three of the five losing bidders shared troubling concerns with the Beacon, describing a tender process that lacked transparency and that was out of step with the BVIEC’s usual practice and with guidelines included in the Public Finance Management Regulations 2005.
This situation raises many questions. But when the Beacon attempted to contact BVIEC leaders and Premier Andrew Fahie — who last year called the tender process “rigorous” and “transparent” — they did not respond over the course of several months.
It would appear, then, that they feel no need to explain to the public why they bypassed VI firms during an economic crisis in order to award $4.6 million in taxpayers’ money to a foreign contractor with a history of troubling allegations.
Of course, hiring foreign firms is not necessarily bad in itself: Sometimes they can provide taxpayers much better value for money than local firms. And BVIEC officials did make that argument when they announced the contract, explaining that Power52 had provided the best offer by far.
But they didn’t provide much information to show how they came to that conclusion, leaving many questions unanswered.
For example, what due-diligence procedures did they carry out on Power52 and the other bidders? Did they know about the Power52 founder’s history of lawsuits? If so, what are they doing to ensure that the Anegada project is completed as promised and that taxpayer money isn’t put at risk?
Additionally, why did they use an unusual tender process for such a large and important project? And why did they entrust much of that process to consultants with the Norway-headquartered consulting firm DNV GL?
Finally, do they regret sidelining two VI firms during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many businesses are struggling? And why haven’t they responded to the Beacon’s contact attempts over the past six months?
Too often in recent years, the territory has watched foreigners partner with the government in ill-fated endeavours that cost taxpayers millions with little or nothing to show for it.
As examples, one need only remember the $7.2 million paid to BVI Airways, which never flew; the millions spent on greenhouses that don’t exist to this day; or the millions overspent on the new hospital around the time government terminated its contract with the main contractor over perceived “deficiencies” in its work.
In all of these cases — and many others — government spectacularly failed to carry out adequate due-diligence on its partners from abroad.
To be clear, we are not saying that the Anegada solar contractor is necessarily a bad bet. To his credit, he spoke to the Beacon at length, denying many of the allegations against him in seven lawsuits over the past 11 years and claiming that his legal troubles are nearly behind him, his debts nearly paid.
He also said that he has decades of experience that will serve him well on the Anegada project, and that he is ready to get to work.
We would very much like to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, with nearly $5 million of taxpayers’ money at stake — and two VI firms sidelined during an economic crisis — blind trust is a luxury the territory cannot afford.
We hope, then, that the BVIEC knows what it is doing, and that it is using foolproof safeguards to ensure that the project is completed properly and on schedule. If not, it should put the effort on hold and map another way forward.
And either way, it should immediately provide the public with a full explanation for its peculiar handling of such an important project.
The government’s efforts to switch to alternative energy have been stymied at every turn in the past two decades, and today nearly all of the territory’s electricity is still produced by burning fossil fuels.
This status quo grows more embarrassing each year as neighbours across the region make the switch.
The Anegada project is a crucial step forward, and the territory must not botch it.