Beautifully Positioned Solar Power

Posted On March 1, 2023

A win-win for the Department of Defense, endangered creatures and perhaps in the future, the rest of us

By KATHERINE PETTIT and created with the assistance of Fort Bragg and Duke Energy

Harnessing the sun on the water while protecting endangered wildlife was the unique set of circumstances that encouraged Fort Bragg to pursue the development of more energy security at Camp Mackall located in the small town of Hoffman in Richmond County. “We had tried to find a location for traditional ground-mounted solar for many years,” said Audrey Oxendine, Fort Bragg Energy and Utilities Branch Chief. “The obstacles were threatened and endangered species (Red-Cockaded Woodpecker) and limitations on training lands. Floating power allowed us to overcome those obstacles and provide more energy at the site.” The site is Big Muddy Lake, used for recreation and training for years. Putting floating panels there would not impact wildlife, nor disrupt the land and it was an intriguing concept with possibilities to create energy in other military installations as well as for the general public.

There were challenges. According to Oxendine, the biggest challenge was awareness of the technology. “Floating solar is fairly new to the United States and this was the first Department of Defense project of its kind,” Oxendine explained. “Making sure everyone on the approval side understood the technology and its advantages was a high priority.” Currently, only 2% of new solar installations are on water. But, the nation has more than 24,000 human-made bodies of water that could be useful for floating solar development. The technology is expected to grow quickly over the next decade. North Carolina is a logical location for its growth as the state is fourth in the nation for overall solar power capacity. The possibilities are exciting for the Sandhills, to say the least.

To get the job done, Fort Bragg contracted with Duke Energy to install the solar array, battery and other energy conservation measures. The agreement is a Utility Energy Service Contract (UESC) between Fort Bragg and Duke Energy for a period of 19 years. Fort Bragg makes an annual payment, like a mortgage, and the government owns/operates everything installed under the contract. It is the largest floating solar power plant in the southeast.

Why Duke Energy? “Since Duke Energy provides the majority of our electricity. Fort Bragg was already working with them,” Oxendine said. (The $36 million contract also included LED lighting upgrades, HVAC upgrades and Water Conservation fixtures. The floating solar was added a year into the development of the UESC.)

“Duke Energy’s work with Fort Bragg will lead to better energy efficiency and cost savings at the base,” said Brian Savoy, Duke Energy's chief financial officer. “We’re excited to help put Fort Bragg at the forefront of renewable energy innovation through this unique floating solar facility.” The project was completed with the help of Duke Energy’s prime contractor Ameresco, which is also enthusiastic about the possibilities.

“The opportunity to implement this innovative use of clean energy technology for a military base as notable as Fort Bragg was one that our Federal Solutions team was thrilled to lead on,” said Nicole Bulgarino, Ameresco’s executive vice president and general manager of Federal Solutions

Today, the solar panels and battery are providing electricity to Camp Mackall which will lower the electricity bill with Duke Energy. “During a power outage, the solar panels and battery can provide approximately one-half of Camp Mackall’s power needs,” Oxendine said.

So what’s in it for the surrounding communities and indeed the critters who call the Big Muddy Lake area home. “I think this project could help support community resilience,” Oxendine said. “Many subdivisions have large storm water basins that could be used for floating solar. The system rises and falls with the water level, so a constant volume of water is not required.”

In Sandhills neighborhoods, there are hundreds of possibilities for communities, and plenty of individual homes with ponds or lakes which could also use it to power their homes or provide energy security during a hurricane. Oxendine explains that creating a micro-grid for a community of homes powered by floating solar could provide energy security when grid power is lost for a time.

And what about the possibility or probability that a hurricane will bring havoc to the system? The engineers thought of that as well. “The system is tested and rated for a CAT 5 hurricane,” Oxendine said. “It’s also anchored so it stays within the designated area of the water body and doesn’t drift. Everything is insulated. It’s just like a ground-mounted system getting rain. The water doesn’t damage it.”

As for the critters, they may think they’ve been moved to a resort area. The panels should make the water underneath them cooler, which reduces algae blooms. Turtles may be able to use the floats to sunbathe in safety instead of returning to the shore. And birds may well use the panels as take-off points for fishing.

The Hon. Rachel Jacobson, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment is enthusiastic. “This project fulfills the commitment made in our Army Climate Strategy to increase resilience while delivering clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jacobson. “When we collaborate with local utilities and industry to promote energy resilience while powering the local grid, it is a winning solution across the board.” Likewise, the same holds true for communities such as Pinehurst, Aberdeen and Southern Pines.

“Sometimes, our government leads the way on how we should think about energy and resiliency,” said Savoy. “For a neighborhood, this facility would fuel 735 homes for a year. Think about how this can be duplicated on many places across North Carolina and the region. Fort Bragg is really a model.”