Issue over solar power heating up Northampton race
Posted: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 6:00 am | Updated: 10:52 am, Wed Oct 9, 2013.
By Chris English Staff Writer
Source: “Issue over solar power heating up Northampton race.” Bucks County Courier Times. Wednesday. 9 October. 2013. ‹http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com/news/local/issue-over-solar-power-heating-up-northampton-race/article_7b05bc49-5866-5c23-977d-a2842978fda9.html›
Apparently nothing can rise above the Northampton political fray these days. Even a seemingly benign subject like green energy has some in the township seeing red.
Democratic incumbent Supervisor Frank Rothermel and Republican challenger Barry Moore — joined by plenty of people on both sides — have been going at each other during recent supervisor meetings about two solar panel arrays proposed by Moore’s company, Moore Energy Systems of Upper Southampton.
Rothermel accuses Moore of getting a sweetheart deal through his political connections, while Moore, a state official and others say nothing improper occurred.
One of the arrays is installed, but the other has been tabled. Both involved a third-party investor, a company called Max Solar of Stockton, N.J.
Max Solar paid for and owns a $193,000 solar array installed by Moore Energy Systems for the Northampton Bucks County Municipal Authority, the entity that provides water and sewer service to thousands of customers in the township. The solar system provides power to one of the authority’s well houses.
For its part in the deal, Max Solar received a $57,915 corporate tax credit from the federal government and a $22,000 rebate from state government. One of Rothermel’s main allegations is that the rebate violates the state Department of Environmental Protection’s sunshine guidelines for the Residential and Small Business Solar Program.
A provision in the guidelines states that small-business applicants seeking the rebate “must be a for-profit business located within Pennsylvania.”
Rothermel charges that a solar array proposed by Moore’s company for the township-owned senior center — very similar in structure to the authority project — also would have violated that rebate provision had it gone through.
The senior center project was tabled by a 3-2 vote at a supervisors meeting on Sept. 12 of last year after Rothermel said he had an alternate proposal but declined to reveal specifics. Rothermel and fellow Democrats James Cunningham and Kimberly Rose voted to table. Republicans Eileen Silver and George Komelasky voted against.
Rothermel only revealed specifics of his alternate proposal more than a year later — at the Sept. 25 meeting this year — after a right-to-know request was filed with the township by Republican Don George.
The alternate proposal is from a company called Electrical Edge of Huntingdon Valley. In explaining his reasons for holding back so long, Rothermel said at the Sept. 25 meeting that he feared Electrical Edge officials might face “retaliation” because the solar issue has become so political.
In an email to the newspaper, Rothermel criticized Moore’s projects at the authority and senior center.
“All of them as proposed or arranged were no-bid deals between Barry and his political friends,” Rothermel said. “And I’m not bringing this up because of the election. I stated all of these concerns virtually verbatim when we tabled his no-bid gambit for the senior center project last autumn. The issue resurfaced this summer when he completed the install of his no-bid project at our municipal authority. And even then I didn’t bring it up, because it was obvious that the (George) Komelasky-controlled sewer board (authority) has the contract wired in for Barry — George’s buddy.”
State: No violation
But Lynda Rebarchak, community relations coordinator for the state DEP, said Rothermel’s claim about the authority solar project violating the rebate provision of the sunshine guidelines is not correct.
The authority project was done under an arrangement called a purchase power agreement, Rebarchak said. “A PPA allows for third-party corporations to finance solar installations for Pennsylvania homeowners, small businesses, nonprofits and municipalities,” she said. “With these PPAs, a third party owns the solar array. The property owner signs a lease for a period of time (usually 25 years), and in return, they receive lower electrical fees over the life of the lease.”
“Max Solar Energy is acting as a third-party owner in this instance,” Rebarchak continued. “We believe they are a Pennsylvania-registered company, but these PPA owners do not need to be located in Pennsylvania or be a Pennsylvania corporation. We simply require that the project itself be constructed or located in Pennsylvania.”
In an email to the newspaper, Northampton authority Executive Director Tom Zeuner said that the authority put out a request for proposals for the solar array that was “open to any and all parties of interest,” but that Moore’s company was the only one to respond. Rothermel said he felt that RFP process was inadequate, but Zeuner defended it.
“Mr. Moore was not a candidate for supervisor of Northampton Township at the time of the RFP publication, which was months before the spring election primary,” Zeuner said. “The initial proposed agreement was reviewed and substantially modified by our solicitor, resulting in significant changes to the benefit of the authority.”
The Northampton authority’s solicitor, Edward Rudolph, added: “The (Moore) proposal was reviewed by me, and various appropriate changes were made to further protect the financial and legal interests of the authority. Of course, I would not have advised the authority board to consider entering into any agreement that did not meet requisite legal standards, including applicable rules and regulations.”
The cost of Moore’s senior center proposal was $177,210. The alternate proposal from Electrical Edge recently spelled out by Rothermel was $111,125.
Northampton Township Manager Robert Pellegrino said he saw no problems with Moore’s solar array proposal for the township senior center.
“The board of supervisors wanted to pursue green initiatives,” Pellegrino said in an email to the newspaper. “He (Moore) was contacted because I heard about his company and he was a local vendor. I did not offer him anything. He presented a proposal that I thought warranted board consideration.”
Pellegrino continued: “It (Moore’s proposal) would have saved the township about $2,000 per year, because the township would pay 80 percent of current electric generation costs until the system could be acquired at no cost (five-seven years according to the proposal), at which time the saving increased to about $12,000 per year.”
Pellegrino said it didn’t seem to make sense at the time to seek other proposals.
“I did not contact any other vendors because there was no cost to the township for the system,” he said. “It was, in my opinion, a rather unique arrangement with a third-party investor who was responsible for the system cost and assumed all of the risk and liability for the system. In my opinion, the proposal was in order.”
The newspaper was unsuccessful in attempts to reach Northampton Township Solicitor Michael Savona for comment.
However, Pellegrino said Savona “reviewed the contract for any legal issues” and did not express any concerns. As for the proposal for the senior center from Electrical Edge solicited by Rothermel, Pellegrino said he felt it was incomplete. “I looked at the proposal, but there isn’t much there to evaluate,” he said. “To do a true comparison (with the Moore proposal) would require a lot more information from Electrical Edge.”
Rothermel claimed Moore’s senior center solar proposal could be a financial headache for the township in a few years.
“Barry never explained why his system was costing so much more, and again, this was designed as a lease-purchase, where we would be buying it back at the then fair-market value, as per the contract,” he said. “So, if it’s a grossly inflated cost on the front end, that necessarily increases the potential cost to township taxpayers on the back end.”
That wasn’t Pellegrino’s take on the Moore proposal.
“I have no idea how the Moore proposal would cost the township on the back end,” the township manager said. “If we never owned the system (and we are not required to), we would simply experience the saving on electric generation (20 percent of the current rate) for the life of the system.”
Moore said he stands by all the solar projects his company has done.
“I believe our residents are upset that a solar system was not installed on the senior center,” he said. “Many residents are mad at Frank, because they believe he didn’t have a valid reason for tabling my proposal back in September 2012. People are becoming more aware of the system at the NBCMA (the Northampton authority) and see it as a missed opportunity for the senior center.”
But Rothermel countered that he is just looking out for the best interests of township taxpayers, and his fellow Democratic supervisors agreed.
“I did vote to table the (senior center solar system) issue,” Cunningham said of the action taken more than a year ago. “After further consideration, I determined that there would have been no significant cost savings to township taxpayers, and that this scheme only would have served to enrich Mr. Moore and his investor friends.”
On her vote to table, Rose said, “We should have gotten competitive bids. We had not actively solicited the proposal, and I felt that any contest that involved a lease-purchase agreement should have been fully vetted.”
Republicans Silver and Komelasky said Rothermel’s delay in releasing his alternate proposal for the senior center project was ridiculous. Silver said the eventual release of the proposal came only after continued pressure from George, the Republican who submitted the right-to-know request for the document.
“When this project was proposed to the board of supervisors and then vetted for many meetings, George and I brought a motion to the floor to approve the project,” said Silver. “At that time, Supervisor Rothermel presented his so-called other proposal. At that time, I asked to see the proposal, and I was denied. I did not vote for tabling, because we had done our due diligence in investigating the offer from Moore Energy.”
Komelasky had similar thoughts about the Sept. 12, 2012, vote to table the senior center solar project and subsequent events.
“I made the motion to approve the project based on the administration’s recommendation and the review by the solicitor,” he said. “The majority (who voted to table) relied to a great extent on Mr. Rothermel’s comment that he had a proposal for the exact same specifications from a reputable contractor for a price substantially lower than the proposal we were voting on. When asked to let the other board members see this document, he refused.”
Komelasky continued: “We now know that due to a private citizen pursuing to see this document that the proposal was not for the exact same system and from a firm out of the area with little experience. We also know that Mr. Rothermel’s claims of improper use of tax credits (in Moore’s projects) is wrong, since the commonwealth has approved everything. If Mr. Rothermel had a much better proposal, then why didn’t he bring it forward to the board to vote on and save the taxpayers some money at the Kinney Senior Center?”