- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Under a mandate to increase its use of renewable energy, the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent more than $408 million on solar panels over five years, despite significant delays and some projects not being operational years after construction began.

The agency’s inspector general found that 11 of 15 solar projects awarded between fiscal 2010 and 2013 under the VA’s “green management program” were still in progress as of May 2015, with only two systems completed. The VA subsequently reported last month that five solar projects have been completed at VA medical facilities, but three of the systems still are not generating power.

“This occurred because of planning errors, design changes, a lengthy interconnection process, and contractor delays,” the inspector general said. “As a result, VA did not increase renewable energy for those solar projects in the time frame planned and incurred additional costs through needed contract modifications.”

Of the total the administration has spent on solar panels for the VA, more than $48 million came from the Recovery Act of 2009. Under an executive order issued by President Obama in March 2015, the VA is required to increase its renewable energy consumption to 30 percent by 2025.

The agency has been dealing with a series of scandals in recent years, from massive cost overruns at a hospital construction project in Denver to veterans who died waiting for care while managers, for the sake of their performance bonuses, falsified wait times to make it appear the VA was treating patients more quickly.

The watchdog said the VA has failed to manage some of its solar energy projects effectively, with solar panels installed at a facility in Little Rock, Arkansas, later removed two years later at a cost of more than $1 million to make way for construction of a parking garage. Those panels never generated electricity because they were incompatible with the local power grid, the report said.

The audit was requested by Rep. J. French Hill and Sen. John Boozman, the Arkansas Republicans who wanted a review of an $8 million solar panel project at the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock. That project is now expected to be finished in January 2017, four years behind schedule, with about $1.5 million in unexpected costs.

Investigators said all of the projects were to be completed in seven to 12 months, but actually took an average of 42 months to finish.

“Whether it is a project as complex as hospital construction or one as simple as the proper installation of solar panels, VA continues to waste large amounts of taxpayer funds as a result of its own ineptitude,” Mr. Hill said.

In its response to the inspector general’s findings, the VA said the investigation was “biased” because it ignored 41 completed solar projects that were awarded during the same time frame.

“VA does not believe that selection of these projects is a representative example of our entire portfolio,” the agency said.

VA officials also said the agency’s combined solar energy projects provide savings of $10 million per year, which allows the department “to redirect those recurring funds to provide care and services to veterans.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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