After a reception celebrating the start of classes at the Power52 Caribbean Energy Institute on Jan. 18, Darrell Ruan Jr. and Kelwyn Lindsay Faulkner were excited to begin their journey towards becoming certified solar panel technicians.
They knew the months ahead would be hard, but with the expectation that they would eventually be hired to build the territory’s first utility-scale solar grid on their home island of Anegada, they felt the payoff would be worth the effort.
During the reception at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, government leaders including Premier Andrew Fahie said the long-promised Anegada project would help jumpstart a renewable energy economy in the territory and ensure that Virgin Islanders are poised to reap its benefits.
But nine months later, after Messrs. Ruan and Faulkner racked up debt to attend the training, the future of the solar grid is unclear.
Officials have provided conflicting information about when the project was set to begin: Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley said during the reception that students would work on it during their four-month training, while Rob Wallace Jr., the American project developer who also led the training programme, told the Beacon in March that he planned to start in early June.
But as of this month, no planning documents had been submitted, no contract had been made public, and the proposed project site next to the Anegada power station was still an unkempt field of dry shrubbery.
During a late May press conference, Mr. Fahie declined to answer questions about the project, claiming that BVI Electricity Corporation General Manager Leroy Abraham would hold a press conference soon, but since then the utility has not made any related announcement, and Messrs. Fahie, Abraham, and Wallace did not respond to interview requests.
Of the 39 students who graduated from the four-month training programme on May 3, Mr. Ruan said he doesn’t know any who have been hired by Mr. Wallace, and Mr. Faulkner is worried that the employment opportunities promised to Virgin Islanders might go to foreign workers instead. “The students [are] going to be the ones to suffer,” Mr. Faulkner told the Beacon.
His concerns were exacerbated, he said, when he learned about the experiences of American Power52 instructors Damon Moulden and Kellyann Few, who both said they were hired to run the training programme and work on the Anegada project.
The instructors told the Beacon that some of their promised paycheques from Mr. Wallace never arrived, and after uprooting their lives to move from the United States to the VI in January for a job they expected to last at least until next year, they left the territory in May, thousands of dollars in debt.
Both instructors said they were supposed to be paid roughly $16,000 each quarter in the VI, but Mr. Moulden only received one of these payments, in January, he said.
Though Mr. Wallace assured him that he would receive the next quarterly payment due in April, this money never arrived, he said.
Big plans dashed
Mr. Moulden, excited to start a new life in the VI, sold his car and house before moving to theVI, and he had to live off credit for his last month in the territory before buying his plane ticket home in May, he claimed.
Ms. Few, meanwhile, said she is owed far more than what she was supposed to have earned in the VI.
Her involvement in Mr. Wallace’s VI endeavours stretches back to late 2019, when she started drafting the bid proposal for the Anegada solar project for Mr. Wallace’s company Power52 Clean Energy Access, she said.
But she claims to have been paid only once, in March, for a “small portion” of what she was owed just for teaching the course.
In interviews with the Beacon, Ms. Few declined to provide a copy of her contract, to say exactly how much she is owed, or to explain why she continued to work for Mr. Wallace even though he routinely failed to pay her over a period of roughly one year.
“I don’t want that out there; I’ve already gone through that [emotion],” she said.
Although Mr. Moulden had swapped drafts of contracts with Mr. Wallace, he ultimately relocated to the territory without having one signed, he said, adding that Mr. Wallace told him that the territory might close its borders to guard against Covid-19.
“I was presented with, We gotta leave now before they shut down the island,”’ Mr. Moulden said.
As the training programme came to a close and the payments were late or inadequate, Mr. Moulden and Ms. Few came to believe that there would never be a second cohort of students as planned, and that even if the Anegada grid were erected, they would have no role in its construction, they said.
By July, they had both returned to Maryland, where Mr. Moulden was living in a friend’s condo while waiting to begin a new job as a traveling foreman and Ms. Few was staying with family while looking for work.
“I’m with family,” she said, adding, “We’re working it out together and I’m trying to figure out my next move.”
Similar allegations have been levied against Mr. Wallace before.
In October 2019, three months before Mr. Wallace and NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis announced they would be starting the Power52 Caribbean Energy Institute to bring new opportunities to the VI, a Maryland court ordered Mr.Wallace to pay more than $900,000 to two firms that accused him and his company Power52 Energy Solutions of letting construction run behind schedule, failing to pay subcontractors, unjust enrichment, and fraud, among other allegations.
In June 2020, four other companies filed a joint lawsuit against Mr. Wallace, claiming they were collectively owed more than $284,000 for their work on various Power52 projects.
On June 30, 2021, a Maryland court entered judgments in favour of the complainants worth nearly $122,000, and later dismissed the rest of the claims.
During a March interview with the Beacon, Mr. Wallace admitted to owing money to some subcontractors, but he denied wrongdoing and he blamed the debts on a change in a county tax code that he said added unforeseen costs, prompting his financier to withhold a final payment. He also claimed that the four companies that filed a joint lawsuit were owed far less than they were seeking.
These lawsuits are two of at least seven filed against him and other Power52 entities over the past 11 years, though he said that they stemmed from a small fraction of his projects, the vast majority of which he claimed were successful.
While the $12,500 tuition fees for most of Mr. Wallace’s VI students were covered by a $362,000 grant from UniteBVI, the five Anegada residents enrolled in the programme, including Messrs. Faulkner and Ruan, attended on a government grant, and did not have to pay any of the tuition costs.
As lifelong Anegadans, Messrs. Faulkner and Ruan are active in their community.
Mr. Faulkner makes a living by guiding tours of Conch Island, while Mr. Ruan, who has 14 years of experience in the construction industry, is currently unemployed but serves as chairman of the Anegada Lands Advisory Committee.
But to focus on the rigorous classwork, they reordered their lives, staying in Tortola during the week and traveling back to the sister island on weekends, paying from their own pocket for housing, transportation, and other living expenses, they said.
These were not costs they expected to shoulder.
During a community meeting on Anegada before the classes started, they were told by the premier and Mr. Wheatley that their living expenses would be covered by the Ministry of Finance, Messrs. Ruan and Faulkner said.
That money had not been paid as of Sept. 28, and with the apparently stalled project not generating income for the two men, they have yet to repay the debts they incurred while attempting to claim their stakes in what government promised would be a lucrative industry, they added.
“They said it on record … that they would pay for our food, they would help with our accommodation, for our lodging; they would help with our expense on traveling back and forth,” Mr. Faulkner said.
“I wouldn’t have went and signed up for [the course] if I didn’t hear that. … My money is tight. I got a whole family. I got a daughter. I got bills I gotta deal with.”
Mr. Moulden, the instructor, said his journey to the VI began at a funeral in December 2020, where he was approached by Mr. Wallace about the opportunity to work at the college and on the Anegada project.
At the time, Mr. Moulden had been working as an electrician at a Maryland college, but he had gotten to know Mr. Wallace well over the 20-odd years he had worked intermittently at the solar ventures run by Mr. Wallace, his ex-wife, and his father.
According to Mr. Moulden, the idea of sending him to teach a course in the VI had been floated at least a year earlier, when he was working at Power52 Foundation, a non-profit headed by Mr. Wallace’s ex-wife that was a model for the programme Mr. Wallace replicated at HLSCC.
When the opportunity was presented at the funeral, Mr. Moulden, who had long wanted to move to the Caribbean and loves working on commercial solar projects, was quick to say yes.
“He didn’t have to sell me,” Mr. Moulden said.
Few, on the other hand, had been working with Mr. Wallace for nearly two years before coming to the VI.
Starting in January 2019, she served as the vice president of operations for Mr. Wallace’s company Power52 Energy Solutions, which hired graduates from his ex-wife’s foundation to work on solar projects across Maryland.
But that company hit challenges later that year.
In October 2019, the same month Mr. Wallace was hit with the $900,000 court judgment, Power52 Energy Solutions was forfeited by the Maryland comptroller for unpaid taxes.
The company is still not in good standing, and its most recent filing is the October 2019 notice of forfeiture, according to the Maryland government’s online business registry.
Ms. Few said Power52 Energy Solutions closed in April 2020, with Mr. Wallace blaming the Covid-19 pandemic.
But in May 2020, Ms. Few, motivated by the opportunity to support the VI’s fledgling green economy, began working as a “consultant” on Mr. Wallace’s Upcoming projects in the territory, she said.
“My goal was to focus on the students and getting credentials in hand,” she said, adding, “We were supposed to go to the [VI] in support of developing an industry.”
‘Individuals to build’
By Ms. Few’s account as well as that of the college, the VI programme was largely successful. As of Oct. 4, 37 graduates had received credentials from the Florida-based National Centre for Construction Education and Research, and 20 students had received certificates from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, HLSCC President Dr. Richard Georges told Beacon on Oct. 4.
Those qualifications make the graduates employable, Mr. Moulden said.
“Any of those people that come out of that class can start … at an entry-level solar installation tech,” the instructor said.
“And anybody with any electrical background is going to automatically jump to foreman.”
The instruction went beyond ensuring that the students understood the curriculum, Ms. Few said.
She also taught professional development classes, and she has continued to help the graduates write their resumes and plan their careers even after the programme finished, she said. “We helped form them into individuals that can help build the industry in the BVI,” she said. “They are ready, equipped, and should be utilised.”
In speeches during the programme graduation, students spoke of the training as a transformative experience, a sentiment that was repeated in interviews with the Beacon.
“That experience, at least for me, it brought people together where it’s like family; I would never ever not be there for those individuals, the teachers and the staff,” Mr. Ruan said.
Mr. Faulkner spoke similarly.
“Kellyann was like our mother,” he said, adding, “It was a hurt to see what transpired.”
A four-month effort
But the students and instructors interviewed for this article also acknowledged that the training was a grueling four months.
Ms. Few generally caps attendance in her solar courses at 20, but there were 39 students in the first cohort, she said.
The workload effectively doubled from what she expected, and despite sending Mr. Wallace and college administrators monthly reports detailing the mounting difficulties, the instructors received limited support, she and Mr. Moulden said.
“There were moments of intensity, because we had to deal with individuals who had a variety of needs from tutoring to personal support,” she said.
Beyond her teaching responsibilities, Ms. Few, as di rec-tor of the Caribbean Energy Institute, headed up the administration of the programme.
Once the course began, she said, she had to shift plans daily and weekly to meet the needs of the students, handle the course logistics, and ensure that students had the proper learning materials and access to clean classrooms.
Ms. Few claims that she never received the amount of administrative support she expected from the college.
And although the bulk of instruction fell to Mr. Moulden, Ms. Few also taught some math and professional development courses, she said.
However, she described Veronique King, a programme administrator at the college, as an invaluable companion in making the energy institute work.
“In terms of executing, it was me and her just tag-teaming,” Ms. Few said.
Last month, Dr. Georges told the Beacon that Ms. Few identified some of these concerns during an exit interview and that the college had tried to address some of the problems she and Mr. Moulden faced throughout the training.
“During the running of the course, the college worked with Ms. Few through its various departments … to address concerns as they arose,” Dr. Georges wrote.
He added that while he could not “speak to matters internal to Power52, … the college conducted its own internal assessment of the programme at its conclusion as is necessary for our reporting obligations to our donor.”
Georges previously told the Beacon that 21 students were receiving full or partial scholarship funding from the $362,000 grant Unite BVI awarded to the college for the initiative.
In May, after Ms. Few and Mr. Moulden left the VI, Dr. Georges wrote that the college had not scheduled a second course but was working to find apprenticeships and other opportunities for graduates of the first cohort.
Unite BVI representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
It was not just the sheer number of students and administrative tasks that made work difficult for the instructors: There was also an apparent discord between the college and Mr.Wallace, they told the Beacon.
Prior to arriving in the VI, Ms. Few said, she worked with Mr. Wallace to finalise a list of materials that students would need to complete the lab portion of the class.
Mr. Wallace was “instrumental in making sure that we knew where to procure these items,” she said, adding that he coordinated “with the college to see what materials might have been on campus.”
Despite the preparations, Mr. Moulden said the needed lab equipment was not available when he arrived, and Mr. Moulden tried to ship the materials into the territory after the programme had already started.
Eventually, Mr. Wallace took over the effort to gather the requisite lab materials, but according to Mr. Moulden, that effort devolved into a prolonged back-and-forth between Mr. Wallace and HLSCC officials about who was responsible for what.
The materials were eventually ordered and the students did get practical experience throughout the course — Mr. Moulden said that they had about six hours of hands-on training for each chapter they studied — but because of the delays his instruction did not follow its usual sequence, he said.
Asked about the delays, Dr. Georges responded, “The college procured the instructional materials for the laboratory sessions, but as most are aware there were shipping delays (as there have been throughout the pandemic) that we asked Power52 staff to work around.”
The Covid factor
The pandemic complicated instruction in other ways, Mr. Moulden said.
To avoid overcrowding, Mr. Moulden typically taught in front of a classroom with 16 students while streaming the lesson to the rest of the cohort who were gathered in another room, he said. “Whoever was watching me via [the streaming technology], … they’d be missing out,” Mr. Moulden said.
“The audio would lag behind or break up or the frame would freeze.” Mr. Wallace made some effort to ease their workload, Ms. Few said, adding that “he did make calls and push things through.”
Dr. Georges said the college identified “hardware challenges with our radio link,” but staff fixed the problem.
During the January reception, VI leaders portrayed the training programme and Anegada project as tied together, proclaiming that graduates would be qualified to help build the sister island’s grid.
But from the moment Mr. Moulden arrived on Tortola, he was dubious that the Anegada Project would happen, he said.
It takes months to procure the equipment necessary to build such a grid, and none of it had even been shipped to the territory, he said.
Eventually, any notion that he would teach another crop of students dissipated as well, he added.
By the end of April, Mr. Moulden hadn’t received his quarterly cheque, no new books were being ordered, and no new prospective trainees were being interviewed, he said.
“Common sense told me there’s not gonna be a second cohort,” Mr. Moulden said.
As the class went on, Ms. Few also began to suspect that Mr. Wallace’s direction had shifted, as she was excluded from discussions about the grid’s construction, and she began to question her role in his plans for the territory, she said.
Despite frequently asking him for updates about the status of the project and her role in it, months went by without any explanation, she said.
“I don’t think I had a clear answer until I got back to Maryland,” she said.
As the class wound to close, Mr. Faulkner also started to doubt that he and his fellow students would work on the Anegada project.
These doubts were exacerbated when he happened across a meeting at Big Bamboo Beach Bar and Restaurant in early June between Mr. Wallace, an Anegada contractor who had not attended the training programme, and a man Mr. Faulkner believed to be another American solar developer.
To Mr. Faulkner, the presence of another American developer suggested that Mr. Wallace might bring in foreign workers to build the grid, possibly leaving Anegadans to maintain the solar plant.
“That just showed that … blatantly they’re not looking to meet with anyone here that’s from the class,” Mr. Faulkner said.
Both Mr. Moulden and Ms. Few keep in close contact with graduates of the programme, and Mr. Faulkner spoke to both instructors after running into Mr. Wallace during his meeting at Big Bamboo, he said.
Hearing the instructors’ claims that they were unpaid and excluded from the Anegada project left him to conclude that he and the other graduates could be treated similarly, he said.
“It’s like he just threw them in the wayside,” Mr. Faulknersaid. “If that’s what you’re doing with [the teachers], … who’s the students?”
Mitch Vanterpool, a BVIEC employee who lives on Anegada, also doubts that any of the programme graduates will find work on the solar plant, including as maintenance people, he said. According to Mr. Vanterpool, he was told by Mr. Abraham that he and other Anegada BVIEC employees will be trained to maintain the plant, so that once it is built the upkeep will be left to them, he said.
“That [expletive] gonna fall on me,” Mr. Vanterpool said.
That the project will be built at all is far from assured.
Having worked construction for so long, Mr. Ruan understands that developments are frequently delayed.
So although he has heard many concerns from classmates and other residents about the future of the project, he is waiting for government to address the situation before rushing to a conclusion.
But having completed the training and waited months for work to start, he feels that a full explanation from government is long overdue.
“For the industry, for the investment for the students, and to see where our future is, I do believe something needs to be spoken up and brought forward,” Mr. Ruan said.
He still hopes the project will get off the ground and bring positive opportunities to Virgin Islanders, but he doesn’t downplay the obstacles he faced in trying to make himself a candidate for the job, and the difficult circumstances in which he finds himself now.
“The guy who assisted me, I love him to death, but I owe the brother some money,” Mr. Ruan said in a July interview.
“School has been done since May 3; … we’re in July, past July 3, and nothing. I owe people money based on a promise and I can’t even provide a response.”
In follow-up interviews on Sept. 28, both Messrs. Ruan and Faulkner said that Mr. Wallace had recently created a WhatsApp group with programme graduates and had been encouraging them to send him their resumes and qualifications so that he can try to put them in touch with solar developers in the US and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
According to Mr. Ruan, Mr. Wallace still claims that the Anegada project will get underway shortly.
“[Mr. Wallace] has been good about reaching out to us and keeping us up to date,” Mr. Ruan said.
Mr. Faulkner said that he too appreciated Mr. Wallace’s attempts to keep in touch with the graduates, though he did not know if anyone has taken up Mr. Wallace’s offer to help them find work.
“People kind of checked it out,” he said. “I didn’t even answer it.”
Mr. Wheatley, the NRLI minister, corroborated Messrs. Faulkner and Ruan’s account of the community meeting held before the training started, saying that he and the premier had offered to assist the students financially, inviting them to send “proposals” to the Ministry of Finance of their expected living costs.
But because of fiscal losses suffered during the pandemic, this money has yet to be paid out, Mr. Wheatley said during a July 29 interview with the Beacon.
However, Mr. Wheatley maintained that the government did try to ease the student’s burdens. “We tried various options to assist them,” Mr. Wheatley said.
In addition to covering the tuition of the five students from Anegada, government also footed the bill for the transportation costs of at least one Virgin Gorda student who paid the tuition out of pocket, catered lunch a few times a week, and occasionally pooled ministers’ personal funds to supplement needy students, Mr.Wheatley said.
He added that he did not recall how much money was donated in such a manner or how often.
“If I had realised at that time that we had to pay for everything,” Mr. Wheatley said, apparently referring to tuition fees and living expenses, “we would have offered half, and then used the other half to pay for food and board and transportation.”
Mr. Wheatley said he did not know the status of the Anegada project or whether a contract has been signed, but he looks forward to its completion.
“It’s a very exciting project,” he said, adding, “It sends the right message in terms of the environment and how we view fossil fuels and alternative energy.”
However, he said that if it goes forward, the energy institute students must play a vital role, and he would oppose any attempt to bring in foreign workers instead.
“It would be a slap in the face,” Mr. Wheatley said. “We designed the course specifically for BVIslanders to participate in this project. … So to go forward without them would make absolutely no sense at all.”