A solar panel project at Little Rock's veterans hospital is four years behind schedule and expected to go $1.5 million over budget, an agency watchdog entity reported Wednesday.
Included in unplanned costs is a $906,000 charge to disassemble and reassemble nonfunctional panels to make way for a parking garage at John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock.
About 7,300 solar panels were installed at the hospital in 2013 at a cost of about $8 million but were never activated because they did not meet the requirements to go online in electric utility Entergy's system. They were disassembled in 2015.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials now expect the 1.8 million-megawatt solar panel system to be complete and placed atop the parking garage in January.
The VA office of inspector general blamed the project's problems on poor planning, design modifications, contractor delays and a lengthy interconnection agreement process between the VA and Entergy.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. French Hill, both Arkansas Republicans, in responses to Wednesday's report criticized the VA.
"The OIG report does little to instill confidence in VA's ability to effectively manage construction projects," Hill of Little Rock said in a statement. "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."
The inspector general report was conducted at the behest of Hill and Boozman of Rogers. The two lawmakers requested an audit of the Little Rock VA and other solar projects at veterans hospitals nationwide.
The inspectors general found that of the 15 solar projects awarded from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2013, only two had been completed by this March. The projects took, on average, 3½ years to complete, the report said. The projects were supposed to have been completed within six months to a year.
By last month, three additional solar panel projects had been completed, the report said.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began studying the prospect of partially powering its facilities with large solar panels in 2007. The department has spent more that $400 million on solar projects since 2010.
The Little Rock VA hospital awarded a solar project contract in early 2012. Contractors installed the panels in February 2013 where they remained, inoperable, until being disassembled in April of 2015.
Boozman urged the VA to ensure that money earmarked for the benefit of veterans be kept away from wasteful projects.
"The clear takeaway is that there is a lack of accountability and oversight at VA when it comes to the Green Management Program," Boozman said. "This must change."
Debby Meece, a local VA spokesman, said the completed solar panels should provide 12 percent of the hospital's energy or 2.6 million kilowatt hours annually, which is enough to power about 167 homes for a year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Additionally, the hospital's solar panels are expected to reduce greenhouse gas production by 1,560 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, or about the same amount that 331 passenger cars emit each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
As problems have plagued the Little Rock VA's solar panel project, a similar project began operating in October 2013 at the Eugene J. Towbin Healthcare Center in North Little Rock, Meece said. It has generated 4.6 million kilowatt hours since going online.
The inspector general report recommended that the VA implement four measures to prevent future solar panel complications: strengthen controls to ensure solar projects don't conflict with other projects like the parking garage in Little Rock, compare actual and expected solar power generation to ensure the systems perform as planned, conduct a "lessons learned assessment" for project delays to smooth the development of future projects and share best practices for cooperation with local utilities.
VA Interim Assistant Secretary for Management Edward Murray agreed with the first two recommendations, expressing his intention to follow them. Murray, however, "nonconcurred" with the final two suggestions because he said the department already shares information and each state deals with different utilities, making universal guidelines impossible.
Contacted Wednesday afternoon, local VA officials said they had not yet read the entire inspector general report, which was released about 3 p.m.
"We certainly respect the OIG, and whatever the recommendations, we'll comply," Meece said. "We appreciate any guidance they can give."
Metro on 08/04/2016