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Massive Detrick solar array only fraction of Army's renewable energy capacity

By C. Todd Lopez

FORT DETRICK, Md. (June 22, 2016) -- A 59,994-panel solar array, spread over 67 acres of Army land that's been leased to a private developer, provides 15 megawatts of electricity, or 12 percent of the power used by this central-Maryland Army base.

Fort Detrick, about 50 miles west of Baltimore, is a center for strategic medical research and communications in support of the national defense, said the garrison commander, Col. Robert A. O'Brien IV.

Solar panels are situated in a grassy field.
A 15-megawatt solar array at Fort Detrick, Maryland, now provides about 12 percent of power to the installation. While the array started producing power in February, Army officials recognized it's official opening during a June 17, 2016 ceremony at the installation.

At a small ceremony here, June 17, O'Brien, along with Army, DOD, federal government, and private industry officials, provided remarks and cut a ribbon to commemorate the opening of the solar array, which took a little over a year to build, and which is expected to provide nearly $3 million in cost avoidance over the duration of the 25-year electricity purchase agreement the Army has with the project's private developer and owner.

The solar array actually started providing power in February, O'Brien said, and since then his installation has saved considerably on its electric bill.

"What we have found as it has produced energy is that the cumulative savings in power cost, based on what we are getting from the solar field versus what we were getting straight off the grid, is about $136,000 in those two and a half months that we have recorded savings," he said. "It's functioning well and is providing about 12 percent of our power needs for the installation."

When it comes to money to run his installation, that solar array has been a boon for his bottom line. O'Brien said he gets to keep that money and apply it to other places inside his operation's budget.

"We're rolling that into base operations to use for other purposes, so we can use it for other projects we have," he said. "We can divert it to other priorities. It allows us to have quite a bit of freedom with the budget we have got, and not have to go out and seek other funding sources to meet some of our other priorities."

Funding is of course a critical issue for Fort Detrick, as it is for any Army or federal installation or agency. But construction of the solar array now in operation there was always about more than shaving dollars off a budget.

More than being about money, the array contributes to something else: energy security and resilience. Because Fort Detrick generates enough of its own electricity -- with the solar array and through other means, it can keep on doing what it does to contribute to the national defense, even if the civilian power grid were to shut down.

"We can direct the energy to the critical infrastructure nodes where we need it first," O'Brien said of what happens during a civilian power grid failure. "We have several backup capacities as well, including generators and a central utilities plant here that provides backup power -- prime power and backup power into the research laboratories."

Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, said she envisions a future where the entire Army is capable of doing what O'Brien can do at Fort Detrick: continue to execute its critical national defense mission, without needing to depend on anybody else for power.

With renewable, on-base generation, Hammack said, "we are augmenting power that comes from the power grid. And we always have multiple sources. That's what we want, multiple options. We have diesel generators. We have co-gen coming from natural gas, so you're making heat, hot water and electricity from natural gas. We have traditional power that comes from the grid, and then we have renewable sources."

A resilient installation, she said, can't just depend on one or two sources of power. An installation that might use diesel generators as it's back up to the power grid, for instance, still relies on diesel fuel coming in so that it can produce power. That's a vulnerability, she said.

"So if you are entirely dependent on diesel generator sets, then you are subject to the logistics resupply that could be interrupted," she said. Solar power doesn't have that kind of problem. "The nice thing about the sun is, unless you have three or four rainy or cloudy days, it's a resource that is always there."

At Fort Detrick now, the renewable power provided by the solar array produces 12 percent of the power used on the installation. Ideally, the Army would like to get that number up to 25 percent. In fact, the Army wants, by 2025, to be able to say that 25 percent of all the electricity used by the entire Army is provided by renewables -- and that's a tall order.

According to Hammack, the Army is the single largest user of electricity within the entire federal government. The Department of Defense uses more electricity than any other department, she said, and of that, the Army uses about 35 percent.

"Last year alone, our facilities consumed over $1.3 billion dollars of facility energy," she said. "Recognizing that, we need to be more resilient and we need to manage our cost. We made a commitment to the president of deploying 1 gigawatt of renewable energy on our installations by 2025."

That 1 GW of renewable energy that was promised to the president represents about 25 percent of what the Army uses. So far, the Army has achieved 12 percent across the total force in renewables generation. So Fort Detrick's percentage of renewables generation is on par with that of the larger Army. Hammack said she doesn't see a problem reaching the 25 percent renewables goal.

"We're going to beat that," she said. "We're going to do more than that."

Down south, in Georgia, Fort Benning is already running a 30 MW solar array -- that's double what Fort Detrick has, and is for now, the largest solar array in the Army. But they won't have the distinction for long. Also underway in Georgia are two additional 30 MW solar arrays, one each at Fort Gordon and Fort Stewart. Both of those arrays are expected to come online before the end of this year.

Solar isn't everything, however. Michael F. McGhee, the executive director of the Army's Office of Energy Initiatives, said down at Fort Hood, they're generating 50 MW of wind power, offsite, and are also making use of their own 15 MW solar array.

"That hybrid project, as we call it, not only provides additional energy security and resiliency for the grid that serves the base, but it also offsets and avoids future costs to the Army to the tune of about $160 million. We have a lot of activity in the Army, looking at renewable energy, energy efficiency, and also energy security -- which is a big issue to the Army and the Department of Defense."

Up in New York, Fort Drum is making use of a 60 MW bio-mass facility that burns wood clippings and wood pulp from the logging industry there. "It's stuff that would have otherwise been buried or burned, but we're using to generate power," Hammack said. She said the Army is also using geothermal and hydroelectric in other areas.

"There's a steady pipeline of projects that are either being evaluated or already undergoing the contracting process," Hammack said.


Fort Detrick is divided into three areas. There's the main post, where most of the research facilities and base housing are located, there's an "Area B," where the solar array is located, along with a small farm-type facility that houses animals and a paint ball facility. And about 35 miles south, near the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, is the "Forrest Glenn Annex."

On the main post, O'Brien said, the Army is looking beyond its own efforts to get to its overall goal of 25 percent renewables. The privatized housing partner there, responsible for about 600 homes, is also in on the effort. They've recently installed solar panels on top of many of the privatized homes, he said.

Those panels are not online yet, though, so it's unclear for now how much they will contribute to Fort Detrick's overall percentage of renewables, but O'Brien is optimistic of their contribution.

"Those homes are energy consumers, off the grid, that we are tracking right now," he said. "We are anticipating our power costs to go down another pretty big chunk.

O'Brien also said he'd have liked to see an energy storage capability included with the solar power project, which would have further enhanced the base's resiliency in the face of major power outages. But at the time the project kicked off, it was deemed too expensive to pursue. But, he said, that won't always be the case.

"One of the future development opportunities for this is, as the price of battery storage for power comes down and the capabilities increase, we're looking at should we build a storage facility to be able to store power for when we need it, for during surge times," he said.

The colonel said there are still other opportunities to be exploited at Fort Detrick. The solar array in Area B has room to expand, he said, and "there are lots of building tops, and we could build micro solar panels or wind turbines."

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