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October 31, 2013

One year later, FSU sustainable energy facility still has no occupancy permit

FROSTBURG — Although completed one year ago, Frostburg State University’s $2 million, state-of-the-art Sustainable Energy Research Facility still sits empty without an occupancy permit from the city of Frostburg.

Largely completed in October 2012, the SERF sits off Midlothian Road on the southern end of the FSU campus known as the Allegany Business Center.

A scheduled walk-through of the impressive self-sustaining structure Tuesday found a facility void of students, books and desks. The reason the SERF sits empty reveals a series of miscues and false starts that have shadowed the new facility.

“It was the dream of the physics and engineering departments to develop the center,” said Joseph Hoffman, professor of physics and engineering.

FSU officials hope the the off-the-grid facility will become a leading educational center for sustainable energy studies.

However, the SERF, which features wind turbines, solar panels, skylights for natural light, a radiant heat system, hydrogen fuel cells and more, has faced difficulties in getting its doors opened.

“There were some issues. The attention to administrative details was insufficient,” said Stephen Spahr, vice president for economic development.

According to Hoffman, the SERF was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

In the beginning, the facility was being overseen by project manger Oguz Soysal, an engineering professor with the university.

However, under his leadership, problems began to occur with the administration and protocols required of the grant-based project.

Spahr said although no money has been misappropriated, the project began to experience problems.

“Paperwork was not filed on time. It went on for a length of time,” said Spahr.

The issues under Soysal eventually led to his removal as project manager.

“The auditors recommended that he not be associated with any grants from the university for a time,” said Spahr.

Spahr said that Soysal does remain on the FSU faculty.

To compound the problems for SERF, the facility was cited for some issues by the Maryland Office of Legislative Audits. All entities that receive state funds are subject to a periodic audit by the OLA.

Projects like SERF, which are inspected along the various stages of construction, also must be approved by the Maryland Board of Public Works.

It was here that the facility also ran into trouble.

The SERF sits on a tract of land on the campus, known as the Allegany Business Center, that had been leased to Allegany County in 2001. The agreement gave the county the right to enter into a sublease agreement with a developer. The county did so by selecting a developer.

The sublease gave the developer exclusive rights to be the builder of projects at the location.

The developer then, without bidding the job, constructed the SERF.

The developer for SERF is listed as Academic Privatization, LLC of Smyrna, Ga., according to FSU officials.

The OLA audit cited FSU for this and made a finding against the university for failing to get competitive bids on the construction of the SERF.

 “It’s not as clearcut as what they (the OLA) said. Somebody (the developer) already had the right to build it. The rights were given away in the sublease,” said Spahr.

The matter was referred to the State Ethics Commission with FSU cooperation.

The facility currently sits empty without the required paperwork, including an occupancy permit from the city of Frostburg and the approval of the Maryland State Fire Marshal.

FSU is working to correct the problems surrounding the facility before obtaining the required permits.

The SERF project is now under the leadership of Muhammed Eltayeb, associate professor of electrical engineering at FSU.

University officials hope they can resolve the issues in time to hold classes in the facility next fall.

FSU educators feel the SERF will allow students to study sustainable energies in a hands-on, or experiential learning, environment.

“This will be a real centerpiece in us developing a reputation in sustainable energy resources. We look forward to it to be fully implemented,” said Hoffman.

Greg Larry can be contacted at glarry@times-news.com.

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