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Solar panels have been removed from Miami City Hall. This activist wants to know why

Miami City Hall Solar panels
Courtesy of Sean O'Hanlon
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Activist Sean O'Hanlon spotted city workers removing solar panels from City Hall on Wednesday. On Thursday, trucks were still seen loading the materials to remove them from the property.

“It’s really difficult not to jump to conclusions," said activist Sean O'Hanlon, who spotted the removal of the solar panels.

The City of Miami has long been considered one of the cities most at risk from the effects of climate change and sea level rise. In recent years, city leaders have marketed the city as a progressive actor in taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint.

That left resident Sean O’Hanlon utterly confused when he came across a scene at Miami City Hall on Wednesday that sent a message that cuts in the opposite direction: Workers were busy removing solar panels from City Hall.

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O’Hanlon is an environmental activist who lives on a boat in view of City Hall, and he was riding bike past the building when the scene stopped him in his tracks. He told WLRN that the removal of the solar panels calls the city’s commitment to fighting climate change into question.

“We’re talking about sustainability, resilience — what’s going on here?” he said. “It’s really difficult not to jump to conclusions.”

The work appears to have started on Wednesday, and by Thursday, workers were still loading the panels and the structures they sat upon onto trucks to take away.

Records show the City of Miami removed the solar panels without first getting permits, which are required by the city’s own code for this type of electrical work.

Requests for comment from the city’s communications department have not been answered.

The solar system that was removed had the capability of producing “approximately 10,274 kilowatt hours of renewable energy annually,” according to a 2008 press release from Alterna, the company that did the work. The panels were placed at City Hall under the administration of former Mayor Manny Diaz.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes has played a major role in helping the city coordinate with Florida Power & Light to place solar panels on manmade “trees” in many city parks, which he says keeps the city prepared with sources of power in the face of hurricanes, and in bringing the city’s carbon footprint down.

Reyes told WLRN he was informed that the solar panels at City Hall were not working as far back as 2017, when he was first elected to office.

“I always asked: Why are they not working? Is there anything we can do to fix it? Can we put in new ones?” Reyes said he asked of the city administration, to no effect. “But I did not know they were going to take them out, and I don’t know who gave the OK to take them out.”

Miami commissioner Ken Russell told WLRN he did not know that the panels were going to be removed, but that he spoke with the office of city manager Art Noriega and was assured that the solar panels were no longer working. Sources told WLRN they understand that the solar panels had not been functioning for several years, although the reason is unclear.

“They are working on a plan to replace them now,” Russell wrote in a text message.

No plan for replacing the solar panels has been released by the city.

“If they were gonna be replaced or something there would be a whole ceremony around it. We’re Miami, we love that kind of thing with cameras and lights and ‘look at me!’ ” said Hanlon, the activist. “This just strikes me as typical Miami shadiness.”

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.