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Military marches toward renewable energy

The U.S. military is marching toward renewable energy in a big way, and one of the more recent projects is a 30-MW solar farm developed by Georgia Power at Fort Benning, which will help the U.S. Army meet critical energy and security goals.

By Paul MacDonald

No pun intended, but it's clear the U.S. military is definitely marching big-time toward renewable energy—and major utility Georgia Power is helping them make the move.

This last summer marked the start of operations of a 30-MW solar project at Fort Benning, a major U.S. Army base near Columbus, Georgia. This facility is the first of five on-base military solar projects being developed by Georgia Power, in coordination with the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of the Navy.

The Fort Benning solar project alone represents a $75 million investment by Georgia Power, and it will help the U.S. Army meet critical energy and security goals.

It is the largest solar energy project on any U.S. military installation to date, noted Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy, and Environment. The 217-acre project is the first of eight created by the Department of the Army and supported by the General Services Administration, including same-scale solar energy projects at Forts Gordon and Stewart, also in Georgia.

"Thanks to these solar arrays, these bases will be more sustainable," said Kevin Kampschroer, acting senior sustainability official, U.S. General Services Administration. "Equally and perhaps more important, by giving them greater access to the power they are producing, these arrays will make these bases more secure and self-reliant, as well."

On average, the projects will supply about 20 percent of the army's total electrical demand in the state of Georgia. Hammack said military installations within a community are often the biggest power users due to the missions on the installation. She also said installations are often at the end of the power line.

"When some of that power is generated at the point of use, there is more power available to the community," Hammack said.

During the last 10 years, energy consumption across the army has been reduced by 17 percent, Hammack said, but over that same 10-year period, costs have gone up 45 percent.

"Using renewable energy and being able to procure renewable energy at or lower than grid power—it's good for our budget, it's good for our pocketbook, and it's good for the taxpayer," Hammack said.

"Georgia Power really stepped up when the army said, 'we need to increase the resiliency of our installations,'" added Hammack.

The solar projects support the U.S. Army and their mission to not only strengthen local Georgia bases as economic and community engines, but also to further the development of renewable energy and enhance national security, said Kenny Coleman, Georgia Power's senior vice president of marketing.

"We're committed to assisting our customers with all of their energy needs, including providing information and expert advice to help them make informed choices about adding solar—on an army base or a home rooftop."

The Fort Benning solar project was financed, designed, installed, and is owned and operated by Georgia Power and will provide about 40 percent of peak electrical demand for Fort Benning.

It is part of what Georgia Power and the U.S. Army call the Georgia 3×30 solar project, which involves the development of three 30-MW solar generation facilities at three separate bases throughout the state.

Georgia Power notes that large-scale renewable projects like Georgia 3×30 are adding to Georgia Power's diverse generation portfolio and fueling the state's momentum as one of the fastest growing solar markets in the nation.


On a broader scale, Georgia Power has entered into collaborative agreements with the military to build, own, and operate on-base solar installations, which collectively are expected to generate more than 160 megawatts of solar power. In addition to the projects at Forts Benning, Gordon, and Stewart, the Department of the Navy executed an agreement with the company authorizing land use for a 30-MW solar project at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, in St. Mary's. Additionally, the Georgia Public Service Commission approved a 31-MW facility in negotiation with the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia.

Heading up all the military solar power projects in Georgia is William Houser, senior project manager at Georgia Power. He explained that in the case of Fort Benning, the utility had been working with the base on exploring a variety of renewable energy projects, from biomass power to small-scale solar power.

"In 2013, we started seeing the trend of the decreasing cost of solar power and solar materials—and we thought that solar might be a potential option for Fort Benning," he said.

Early in 2014, the utility filed a memorandum of understanding to look at utility projects at Fort Benning, Fort Stewart, and Fort Gordon—what was to become the 3×30 plan.

These three projects now serve as templates for other solar power projects Georgia Power is undertaking with the military. "The 3×30 army projects really set the standard for additional military projects, such as the Kings Bay naval base and the Marine Corps logistics base," says Houser. "We've had a very similar approach to the five military installations we've done to date. At this point, we have just over 150 MW of solar projects underway or in service now on military bases—and we have approvals to do more.

"But Fort Benning was really the first on the list of military projects for us," says Houser. "We started working with the base to look at the viability of a solar project, looking at the financing, and doing our due diligence." The Georgia Public Service Commission approved the project in the summer of 2014.

As Houser says, a big part of what made the Fort Benning solar project work—and the other solar power projects, for that matter—was the reduced cost of solar power.

"Since 2011, there has probably been upwards of a 70 percent decrease in the cost of solar power, including the cost of panels and inverters, as well as efficiencies in the technology and improvements in installations," he said. "That made the project financially viable."

As a major utility, Georgia Power has developed and built a large number of power projects, but Houser said building a project on a military base poses some unique challenges.

"Just getting the people who are building the project on and off the base is a lot more challenging than building a solar project on private land," he notes, due to high military security.

"And whatever we do, we do not want to interfere with the mission of the base," he emphasized. "For example, at the solar project at Fort Stewart, we did a glare study, so that the solar project did not interfere with the air maneuvers at the base."

 The 30-MW solar project at Fort Benning, a major U.S. Army base near Columbus, Georgia, is the first of five on-base military solar projects being developed by Georgia Power, in coordination with the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of the Navy. The Fort Benning solar project alone represents a $75 million investment by Georgia Power.

They also have to be mindful in terms of suppliers, since there is an emphasis on buying American-produced components, due to U.S. government legislation. No Chinese-manufactured panels were used in any of the projects, but the legislation allows purchase of components manufactured in other countries, such as Canada, who are signatories to trade agreements with the U.S.

"We ran the equipment choices by the army, to get their approval," Houser explained.

There was a great deal of cooperation and collaboration with the base, he added.

"Even though it is a Georgia Power-owned and operated facility, we operate as though we are building it for the military installation—we're very respectful to make sure we review certain things with them, and we do it in the spirit of teamwork and cooperation."

This being a construction project involving the military, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is involved. The corps took the project through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process and did the required associated environmental studies. The corps essentially takes the lead on how to develop the sites.

As noted, there are security requirements that must be met by every single person working on a project on the base, a very significant difference compared to a project that is being built on private land.

"Everyone working on the site with a contractor or supplier has to be vetted," says Houser. "If you are a contractor, and you know that you have certain employees who have some criminal issues, you need not include them."

Security is also a concern with getting material on and off the site by truck. "It is far more demanding from our perspective and from the perspective of our suppliers," he says, adding that it is, however, manageable.

For some contractors, this aspect of the project is a bit of a learning curve. "But many of the contractors we work with have done work on military bases before, so this is not a surprise to them."

Houser added that the Engineering and Construction Services division of Georgia Power's parent company, Southern Company, has a template for doing work on military bases, which is helpful.

At Fort Benning, they were working with a 217-acre site that had to be cleared and graded for the project. "There was considerable civil work that had to be done on the site." The prep work was done by the Corps of Engineers.

Due to the lay of the land and slope on the site, the project was done in two sections, with a small grove of trees and a drop-off between each section.

"We started work on the larger section first, but at one point, with the natural flow of resources, we transitioned people and equipment to the lower section, for efficiency. Both sections are tied together, electrically—they are just separated by a hilly ravine area where we did not want to put solar panels."

Building a solar power project on a military base poses some unique challenges, with high military security. Security requirements must be met by every single person working on a project on a military base, a very significant difference compared to a project that is being built on private land. 

Houser reports there was ample room for materials laydown on both pieces of land. "Once we got going, we started transitioning the laydown area to usable space, as we started putting in the racking systems and installing the solar panels."

Canadian Solar panels were used on the Fort Benning project, as well as the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay project, and the project featured TMEIC inverters. The racking was from Schletter. Both the Fort Gordon and Fort Stewart projects feature REC solar panels, Bonfiglioli inverters, and Unirac racking.

Keeping with the overall approach of working with the base, there were regular weekly construction update meetings. "We were closely involved with the energy manager at the base, and he would be on the site on a regular basis."

As noted, Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Company, bring a great deal of expertise to a project. Southern Company's Engineering and Construction Services division works with EPC contractors to design solar projects and oversees EPC providers during the construction phase.

"We have a core team consisting of environmental, engineering and design, and transmission people that support our projects," says Houser. "We've gained good experience on the projects we've done."

The company is always looking to add to its expertise, as it did through working with the EPC on Fort Benning, Amec Foster Wheeler. "It was kind of unique in that we did a joint project with them so our Georgia Power construction services group people could gain further solar experience."

Houser added that in addition to company-owned projects, like Fort Benning, Georgia Power also buys solar power from other non-company solar projects. "Through all the sources, we were close to having 900 MW of solar by the end of 2016," he says. "There's been a big expansion in solar power over the last few years."

Due to heavy rains—it rained almost every day for a month during construction and caused flooding in some areas of Georgia—there were some challenges with the solar projects at Fort Stewart and Fort Gordon. Fort Benning, located in a different part of the state, was spared the heavy rainy weather. But the contractors and Georgia Power build weather days into project schedules, says Houser. "Even if we get into some delays, there are resources the contractors can add to make up for rainy days, such as working a six-day week instead of a five-day week."

Looking back on the Fort Benning project and the other solar projects he has been involved with, Houser said the key to a successful solar power project is often in the preparation and planning.

"We spend a significant amount of time on the design and engineering work, and on really getting a good understanding of the layout of the site and its topography, so we can best design a project to the land. We start working early in the game on the environmental assessment of the land and make sure we avoid any wetlands and endangered species.

"By doing as much as you can at the front end, you can reduce any changes you might have to make on the back end of a project. The pre-work we do makes the project go a lot smoother."

For the most part, they build pretty much 95 percent to the designs that are developed. "There are very few changes that we have to make on the fly with our projects, because of the pre-work."

Houser said all the participants in the Fort Benning project took great satisfaction in a job well done, noting that it was brought online on budget and on time. He said everyone involved also took pride in helping the base be more efficient, and self-sufficient, with solar power.

"We definitely took a lot of pride in the project," he said. "Early on, we met with colonels from the bases, and they inspired us, telling us what these projects meant to them, in supporting their renewable goals. It was inspiring to know that what we are doing is helping the bases and our military people."