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Promise of solar power rife with problems for local governments

Kevin Killeen and Kelly Hatmaker
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Chesterfield's Director of Planning and Public Works Mike Geisel shows KMOX the city's now complete solar thermal system, which went on-line almost a year behind schedule. (Photo KMOX/Kevin Killeen)

Chesterfield’s Director of Planning and Public Works Mike Geisel shows KMOX the city’s now complete solar thermal system, which went on-line almost a year behind schedule. (Photo KMOX/Kevin Killeen)

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CHESTERFIELD, Mo. (KMOX) — Drive by Chesterfield city hall and you can see it — a massive array of solar tubes on the roof. It’s finally working, but almost became a boondoggle.

Chesterfield’s Director of Planning and Public Works Mike Geisel says the solar thermal array cost tax payers $350,000. Geisel says their contractor, Arctic Solar, LLC, also known as Arctic Solar Engineering, LLC, led the city on a long climb toward solar energy. “But at the end of the day, they didn’t make it work,” Geisel said.

Arctic Solar Engineering, since absorbed by a penny-stock company calling itself EGPI Firecreek, Inc., had hailed the Chesterfield project as “the largest solar thermal alternate energy system in the Midwest” with 110 solar thermal arrays and an 8000 gallon thermal mass energy storage tank.  The company featured the installation prominently in a January 2011 press release to business publications and potential investors, proclaiming the project would be completed within a few weeks, and pay for itself within 5 years.

But Geisel says the solar thermal array didn’t come on line until just this past December, and only thanks to the skill of the city’s own engineers. “The project just stalled and they were not able to program the controls and bring the project to completion. So at some point, we just decided it was in our best interest to move forward and do it ourselves.”

When asked if this green-energy initiative was on the verge of becoming a boondoogle, Geisel replies: “Absolutely.” That blunt assessment is none too surprising, when you consider how the project was approved and some of the people behind it. Even though the city hadn’t budgeted for the expense, the no-bid contract was awarded to Arctic Solar, mostly on the strength of a recommendation from a volunteer advisor from the community. And the man running the company at the time was Timothy Huff,  whose previous venture in government-supported wireless internet in St. Louis County was the subject of an April 2010 investigation by KMOX and the target of a separate SEC probe in Florida at the time of the Chesterfield project, for which he would eventually be jailed and is still behind bars (Huff was later named one of the worst CEO screw-ups of 2010 by Fortune magazine).

So what convinced Chesterfield to sign up? According to minutes from the city council meetings, lawmakers were eager to act on the Arctic Solar offer, in part because of the possible power savings  and in part because of a special low price the company was offering. And it turns out Chesterfield wasn’t alone in buying in to Huff’s claims of green energy saving the government some green: Dardenne Prairie also approved a previously unbudgeted project, awarding it to another Huff-connected enterprise – Solaire Power Technologies, and it appears the state of Missouri even issued the company $100,000 in stimulus money. 

But since then, the company seems to have dropped off the map. After its acquisition, Arctic Solar’s original website has gone dark and the company’s Twitter feed hasn’t had a new entry since May 2010, when it crowed about a solar thermal array it had installed at Space Architectural + Design in St. Louis’ Grove neighborhood (another Tim Huff project that apparently had to be redesigned by an outside engineer, and it also involved a Florida-based consultant named Uli Altvater, who’d worked for Huff’s previous enterprise, GlobeTel, in Florida).

As for its other affiliated projects, earlier this month KMOV-TV reported Dardenne Prairie has had to completely dismantle the solar thermal array Huff sold the town and sell the equipment for scrap, in hopes of recouping some of the more than $160,000 price tag. In Chesterfield, Geisel says the new, city-completed system reduced natural gas usage at city hall 44 percent in December, but instead of 5 years, it will likely take at least a decade to recoup the $350,000 spent on the project.

(Copyright KMOX)

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