More than two years after his company won a $4.6 million contract to build a major solar plant on Anegada, American developer Rob Wallace Jr. broke ground last December alongside officials from the government and the BVI Electricity Corporation.
“This is how you power a nation,” he said during the Dec. 29 ceremony. “You power a nation by empowering the people. That’s our mission — power in perpetuity.”
About five weeks later, Mr. Wallace filed for personal Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Maryland.
Now, BVIEC officials are mum on the way forward despite a November completion target, and the only work visible at the project site is a new chain-link fence and a dozen shallow rectangular holes lined with gravel. It is also unclear who is managing the project and how much money the BVIEC has paid out already.
These are just a few of the unanswered questions about the Virgin Islands’ first utility-scale solar project, which is supposed to power most of Anegada and jump-start a long-promised transition to green energy.
Mr. Wallace’s bankruptcy petition — in which he claimed he owes almost $9.4 million to more than 50 creditors — is the latest in a string of financial and legal troubles that stretch back more than a decade before his company Power52 Clean Energy Access was announced the winner of the Anegada contract in July 2020.
Over the past 14 years, he has also filed at least two other bankruptcy petitions in Maryland. Meanwhile, various courts in the state have ordered him to pay more than $1.2 million to creditors who claimed that he defrauded them, broke his contracts, or refused to pay his bills, among other alleged misconduct sometimes associated with work similar to the project he is contracted to execute on Anegada.
Despite this record, BVIEC officials have previously stood behind their decision to award the contract to Power52 following a highly unusual tender process that drew harsh criticism from three of the four losing bidders.
Now, however, the BVIEC is tight-lipped.
Its current and former leaders have declined to be interviewed or to answer questions about Mr. Wallace’s bankruptcy. They have also declined to provide a copy of the project contract.
Then-BVIEC acting General Manager Symorne Penn did say in February that the company hadn’t been paid in full, but she didn’t confirm how much it had received.
The other new information the utility provided in response to recent Beacon queries raised more questions than it answered: Ms. Penn disclosed in March that the contract didn’t go to Power52 Clean Energy Access as originally announced, but to a different Maryland company with a very similar name: Power52 Clean Energy Access Anegada.
Mr. Wallace — who in the past has denied wrongdoing in connection with his financial troubles — has also been tight-lipped in recent months and did not respond to messages.
Now, the project has the green light from the Planning Authority, which approved the BVIEC’s planning application on April 4 after considering it for less than three months.
But only limited progress is visible at the project site adjacent to the existing Anegada power station.
Ground screws and boxes of other supplies are piled in a corner of a clear-cut field, and a new chain-link fence around the site is lined with about 100 large cardboard boxes labelled with letters that appear to refer to a type of solar panel.
The only visible work in the field is a series of a dozen shallow rectangular holes that will hold the solar plant’s batteries, according to two workers digging there on July 23.
They referred questions to Anegada contractor Lawrence Wheatley, who told the Beacon that he had no comment “other than I think this solar initiative is a great move in the right direction by BVIEC.”
He added, “I am currently just a subcontractor on the project, so I will leave the technical comments for the contractors and project managers.”
Those contractors and managers, however, have said little in recent months, and Health and Social Development Minister Vincent Wheatley, who represents Anegada, acknowledged during a July 7 HOA meeting that the project is “lagging a little behind.”
Mr. Wallace’s bankruptcy petition listed creditors with addresses as far away as Dubai, but most are in Maryland, where Power52 Clean Energy Access is registered.
His nearly $9.4 million in debts included money owed to banks, solar companies, the Maryland comptroller, and a credit union that has petitioned to foreclose on his Maryland home, he claimed.
His assets, however, totaled just $554,935 — mostly through $550,000 in equity in the home, according to the petition.
Neither the asset list nor any other section of the petition mentioned Power52 Clean Energy Access, Power52 Clean Energy Access Anegada, or the $4.6 million contract Mr. Wallace signed during a November 2021 ceremony with the BVIEC.
Mr. Wallace, however, did list a different Maryland company: Power52 Energy Solutions LLC, which was forfeited in 2019 because of unpaid taxes.
His petition claimed that he owned “100%” of the company but reported its value as $0.
Mr. Wallace also stated in the petition that he was “self-employed” and estimated his monthly income at $10,000 against monthly expenses totaling $11,391. Half of that income, he stated, came from “gross wages, salary and commission.”
The other half came from “father contributions” — a possible reference to money received from his father Rob Wallace Sr., CEO of the Maryland solar company Bithenergy.
In a separate financial statement, however, Mr. Wallace claimed that his average monthly earnings over the previous six months were just $3,395 — equaling an annual salary of approximately $40,700.
The bankruptcy is not Mr. Wallace’s first.
At the height of the economic downturn in 2009, he and his then-wife, Cherie Brooks, filed for bankruptcy as their used car business battled a lawsuit from an auto auctioneer initially seeking nearly $182,300 in damages.
Starting around that time, Mr. Wallace and various Power52-branded entities have also been sued at least seven times in Maryland, usually by creditors seeking unpaid debts.
He has denied wrongdoing in interviews with the Beacon and in court filings, but courts have usually found in favour of the claimants, ordering him to pay out at least $1.2 million over the years.
Some of the lawsuits against him were ongoing when Power52 bid for the Anegada contract, and they continued after the company was announced the winner in July 2020.
Mr. Wallace’s second bankruptcy petition came in February 2021 — about seven months after the BVIEC named Power52 as the winning bidder but about nine months before Mr. Wallace signed the contract.
This time, the Chapter 7 bankruptcy was filed on behalf of Pivotal Power Solutions Inc., a Wyoming company he started in 2014.
According to that petition, which he signed as CEO, the company owed nearly $1.8 million to 11 creditors, some of whom were named in previous lawsuits filed against Mr. Wallace or Power52-branded entities in recent years.
Among them, the only apparent winner was a bank, which was allowed to recover a vehicle before Mr. Wallace’s debts were discharged.
It is unclear if BVIEC officials discovered Mr. Wallace’s history of legal and financial troubles before they chose Power52 over four other bidders, including one that had partnered with two Virgin Islands firms and a company backed by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.
But after Power52 was announced as the contract winner, then-Premier Andrew Fahie described the tender process as “rigorous” and “transparent,” and then-BVIEC Chairwoman Rosemarie Flax said the results overwhelmingly favoured Power52.
That tender, however, was harshly criticised by three of the four losing bidders. In their telling, the process lacked basic transparency and bypassed standard procedures outlined in the Public Finance Management Regulations 2005.
Unusual for BVIEC
The process was also highly unusual for the BVIEC.
The utility typically accepts bids in sealed envelopes, which are then unsealed during a press conference and read aloud.
In this case, bidders were instructed instead to email their offers to a consultant the BVIEC contracted to oversee the bidding process: DNV GL, a Norway-headquartered firm with offices around the world.
The BVIEC later announced that Power52 had submitted the lowest bid of approximately $4,687,944. The next lowest bid — $4,751,061 — came from Advanced Solar Products, a New Jersey firm that had partnered with VI companies including Creque’s Engineering Services, headed by electrical engineer and former BVIEC executive Henry Creque.
But shortly after the announcement, Mr. Creque publicly raised doubts about the ethicality and transparency of the bidding process.
“Our team does have a number of concerns pertaining to the administration of this process by the BVI Electricity Corporation,” Mr. Creque stated, adding, “It was somewhat disappointing and troubling to hear [then-BVIEC General Manager Leroy] Abraham deny that there was local participation in the bidding process. Every government administration in the history of this territory … has always verbalised an unswerving commitment to the development of local, BVI-based companies and workers, and remarks of that nature could only serve to undermine the development of local enterprises.”
Two other bidders later shared related concerns, with one alleging that DNV GL never even reached out to inform them that the tender process had concluded.
Anthony Warner, CEO of the Canada-based bidder Virtual Engineers, said DNV GL also continued to press his firm for details about its proposal after the bids were submitted and the prices were published.
This approach, he said, made him concerned the firm was trying to obtain his company’s intellectual property.
“We actually felt very upset about that last communication we had with them, because we felt they were trying to get our system as designed to utilise somewhere else,” Mr. Warner told the Beacon in September 2020.
‘It brings doubt’
Alonso Alvarez, the Mexico-based managing director of bidder HEG Energy, complained of a lengthy tender process with poor communication.
“It brings doubt, it brings uncertainty if someone has a backchannel communication,” he told the Beacon at the time. “You should make the process a lot faster so this doesn’t have to happen.”
The three bidders also complained that their bid-submission costs were inflated by issues including a rushed timeline and a requirement to include two separate price-package scenarios.
Former Financial Secretary Dr. Neil Smith told the Beacon at the time that the process they described was highly unusual in the VI.
Typically, bids for public contracts are deposited in a locked box by a pre-determined deadline to ensure they can’t be copied or altered, according to Dr. Smith, who was appointed BVIEC general manager in April and declined to comment again for this article.
Once the submission deadline passes, bids are usually unsealed in the bidders’ presence, and basic information about the proposals, including the overall price, is revealed, he said previously.
“Once somebody submits a tender, … you should have no way of looking at what that person’s doing,” Dr. Smith said.
Of the four bidders who spoke to the Beacon, Mr. Wallace was the only one to report a positive experience, though he said the submission was largely handled by his staff.
Solar training launch
While the tender process was ongoing, Mr. Wallace was introduced to the VI public.
During a January 2020 press conference, he and National Football League Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis signed a memorandum of understanding to create a solar technician training programme in collaboration with H. Lavity Stoutt Community College.
The training was delayed until the following year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but after the first cohort of students graduated in May 2021, two instructors hired by Mr. Wallace claimed they went into debt after missing payments from him. Mr. Wallace did not respond to questions about the instructors’ allegations, and a second training session has not been announced.
But during the Anegada groundbreaking ceremony last December, Mr. Wallace reiterated promises he first made nearly three years earlier, when he unveiled the training programme alongside Mr. Lewis.
For Virgin Islanders
The project, he said, will ensure that Virgin Islanders lead the charge, and reap the benefits, of the territory’s renewable energy economy.
“I want to make sure that every country, every news channel, every person that said people can’t learn, I want you to see what these young brothers and sisters are going to do on Anegada,” Mr. Wallace said, after calling graduates of the training programme to stand behind him on stage.
“I want to make sure that we take the opportunity to acknowledge what they have done, and to acknowledge what they are going to do going forward.”
But now, with no solar plant in sight, Mr. Wallace is contending with his bankruptcy proceeding in Maryland.
After he was granted an order of discharge on May 24, his bankruptcy trustee has been trying to liquidate his largest asset: his house.
“Although he has been stymied by [Mr. Wallace’s] ex-spouse, who occupies the property, the trustee is attempting to market and sell the property,” the trustee wrote in a June 15 filing.
The court subsequently granted the trustee’s motion to examine Ms. Brooks, and on July 20 he applied to retain a realtor to sell the house.
Despite the serious issues unfolding in Maryland, VI officials have been tight-lipped about Mr. Wallace and the solar project he is supposed to be leading on Anegada.
Mr. Abraham, the former BVIEC general manager who retired two days after the groundbreaking ceremony last December, has not granted the Beacon’s requests for interviews about the project for more than two years.
Dr. Smith, the current general manager, also declined to comment for this story, as did Mr. Fahie, Ms. Brooks and Mr. Lewis.
Ms. Penn, who acted as general manager before Dr. Smith was appointed in April, declined to comment beyond the few answers she provided by email.
Former BVIEC Chairwoman Rosemarie Flax, whose term expired last November, declined to comment. Communications and Works Minister Kye Rymer referred this reporter to the BVIEC.
Representatives for DNV GL — now known as DNV — also declined to comment and referred the Beacon to a statement from 2021 that described the company’s work on the project as industry best practice.
Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley didn’t respond to requests for comment, but he did provide a brief update on the project in the House of Assembly this month, shortly before HOA members voted to appoint Sheldon Scatliffe as the new BVIEC chairman.
“I have had some discussions with the [BVIEC] about what needs to be done to move that forward. … I’ve had discussions with the contractor as well,” Dr. Wheatley said during the July 7 HOA meeting. “So that should be getting off the ground rather shortly, I’m assured by both the general manager of the corporation as well as the contractor.”