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Stalled solar project spurs inquiries

Watchdog group claims Bedford plan abandoned, alleges tax money wasted

Solar panels sit in a field beside the Bedford County Correctional Facility. The solar array project has been delayed since 2018. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

Concern for the viability of a solar panel array outside of the Bedford County Correctional Facility is mounting after an anonymous complainant to a local watchdog group alleged the project had been abandoned, with hundreds of uninstalled solar panels seemingly left to deteriorate in a field.

The plan was to enter a 25-year contract with RER Energy Group, a Reading-based renewable energy company, to install and operate the system and sell energy to the county at a fixed rate.

The solar array would power the jail, courthouse and library, saving taxpayers between $5.3 and $5.5 million “over 30 years by significantly lowering the cost of electricity at the jail,” Mirror records said.

The solar array was expected to produce nearly 2.1 million kilowatt hours annually.

According to Mirror records, the Bedford County jail is the largest line-item in the county’s budget, with electricity payments a significant cost.

Weeds grow among solar panels stored in a field next to the Bedford County Correctional Facility. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

For the 2019 budget, the proposed amount for the jail was $3,394,410 out of $19,424,428 in total expenditures, Mirror records said. Bedford County’s proposed budget for 2022 reserved $4,318,170 for the jail out of $23,422,106 in expenditures.

The project was proposed to Bedford County in early 2018 by RER Energy Group, Bedford County Commissioner Barry Dallara said.

Funding for the $3.3 million project came from private investment and a $900,698 grant awarded in March 2018 by the Commonwealth Financing Authority’s Pennsylvania Solar Energy Program, according to Tribune Democrat records.

The county worked with RER Energy Group to secure the grant, Bedford County’s 2018 Annual Report stated.

The solar project was initially announced in early August 2018 when Bedford Township supervisors approved sending RER Energy’s preliminary development plan to the township engineer to begin the approval process, according to Bedford Gazette records.

During the project’s groundbreaking in December 2018, Bedford County Commissioner Josh Lang said that with the array “the county will be able to lock in energy costs, saving an anticipated $100,000 the first year.”

Similarly, state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Cambria, said the solar array would have “a tremendous impact on the county’s economic development,” while state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, described the project as an investment in good infrastructure.

On Dec. 11, 2018, the Tribune Democrat reported that the project was expected to be online in the spring of 2019, while on Dec. 13, 2018, the Bedford Gazette reported Lang as saying the panels were expected to be operating by July 2019.

During the Bedford County commissioners Aug. 27, 2019, meeting — a month after the project was to be completed — someone asked if there was an update on the solar panel installation. According to the meeting minutes, Lang stated that there are “still the logistics to make this happen,” providing no other detail.

For the next three years, anyone could drive by the jail on Imlertown Road and see the stacks of solar panels sitting in a field — some still vertically strapped together while others lay flat.

This led a concerned community member to reach out to Hollidaysburg Community Watchdog group.

After reaching out to the Bedford County commissioners and RER Energy and receiving no response, the watchdog group sent out a press release that said it had filed a formal complaint with the Pennsylvania Inspector General’s Office alleging waste and misuse of taxpayer funds. It also alerted the state Department of Community and Economic Development that its $900,698 grant had “apparently been squandered.”

“The project stalled well before COVID-19 hit, but the commissioners have still not seen fit to explain what happened,” said Bryan King, the watchdog’s public affairs officer. “There has clearly been a colossal waste of taxpayer resources and a betrayal of the public trust.”

Another watchdog member, Richard Latker, said that solar panels aren’t designed to be stored flat.

“We’re pretty sure that by the time those panels are brought into use, there’s going to be a significant amount of damage,” Latker said. “It’s a colossal waste of taxpayer money.”

When contacted about the matter Wednesday, Topper expressed concern, saying that from his understanding, there were some delays due to the supply chain, the COVID-19 pandemic and Department of Environmental Protection permitting.

“I certainly want to see those cost-saving measures realized,” Topper said.

Bedford Township Supervisors Chairman Gregory Crist said that he had tried to get in touch with the county about what’s going on but hadn’t gotten much of a response.

While Crist couldn’t say much because the township had gotten its lawyer involved, he concedes that the panels were still sitting out there and that he’s sure the boxes had started to deteriorate.

“They’re out in the open,” Crist said. “There’s nothing surrounding them, nothing to keep the elements or animals out.”

However, Barry Dallara, commissioners chairman, insisted that while the wrapping and packing materials may be deteriorated, the solar panels themselves have not been damaged.

“There’s a question about ‘are the panels going to be OK sitting out there?'” he said. “But the panels are designed to be out in the elements for 25 years.”

RER Energy assured the commissioners repeatedly that there was nothing wrong with the panels, Dallara said.

When asked why the project has been stalled since 2018, Dallara stated that design work in 2019 took longer than anticipated.

“By the time that was done, COVID happened,” Dallara said. “In 2019, COVID came out of nowhere and stopped everything for almost two years.”

In addition to blaming the pandemic, Dallara said that DEP permitting, supply chain issues and inflation further hampered the project’s completion.

He now expects the project to be up and running in the next seven to 10 months.

“It will come to fruition, and it will be completed,” Dallara said.

He also stressed that Bedford County had never — and would never — receive money for the solar panel project. While he said the grantee of the project was RER Energy Group, the DCED clarified that the recipient of the funding was Bedford 58 Solar LLC.

While the Mirror could not reach RER Energy Group for comment, Chief Clerk Debra Brown said that they had a conference call with the commissioners Wednesday morning and were waiting to hear from the company.

The fate of a similar project reported on by the Bedford Gazette in December 2018, for which Bedford Borough and RER Energy Group received an $870,000 grant, that would see solar panels built on about 5 acres near the water treatment facility at the Todd Spring Reservoir remains unknown.

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