DENVER (AP) – The Air Force Academy’s decision to pay a local utility $18.3 million in advance to build a solar power array cost taxpayers more than $676,000 in potential interest, military auditors said.

It also left the school with no leverage when the project got behind schedule, the Defense Department inspector general said in a report issued last month.

The audit, first reported by the Air Force Times, said federal rules called for the school to pay only $1.2 million in advance and pay out the rest as the project progressed. The government could have earned interest on the unspent balance, the report said.

Academy officials released a statement to The Associated Press last week saying the array saved more than $51,000 in electricity costs in May alone and wasn’t operating at full capacity yet.

It said the solar panels will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 9,400 tons a year — the equivalent of taking 41,000 cars off the road over the array’s 25-year lifespan.

“This is a win for not only the Air Force Academy, but the American taxpayer,” the statement said.

The statement didn’t directly address the auditors’ criticisms.

The academy outside Colorado Springs contracted with the city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities to build the solar array. The installation began producing electricity in March and was formally dedicated June 13.

The 6-megawatt array has three times the generating capacity originally envisioned for the same $18.3 million price tag. When plans for the array were announced in February 2009, they called for 2 megawatts of capacity.

The installation is part of the school’s drive to become a self-sufficient “net-zero” energy installation.

The audit said the academy incorrectly classified the entire $18.3 million as a fee for connecting the array to the grid, which can be paid in advance under federal rules. The audit noted that Colorado Springs Utilities listed the connection fee at $1.2 million and the remaining $17.1 million as the costs of designing the project, buying and installing the solar panels, and various studies, management and administration functions.

The audit notes the academy granted Colorado Springs Utilities two deadline extensions totaling 32 weeks.

The audit said the academy met other requirements in the federal contracting process, including the way the project was justified.

– By Dan Elliott, AP Writer

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)


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