Floating Solar Panels To Get Army-Tested At Fort Bragg’s Camp Mackall

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The US Army has been playing its renewable energy efforts rather close to the vest these past few years, but here and there some activity has been bubbling up under from under the surface. The latest development involves the hot new trend of floating solar panels, in what could be a first-of-its-kind installation at Fort Bragg’s remote training facility Camp Mackall, in North Carolina.

Floating Solar Panels For World’s Largest Military Facility

The new floating solar panels are an attention-getter because Fort Bragg happens to be the biggest military facility in the world, going by its population of 50,000+ active duty personnel. It is the headquarters for the US Army Forces Command and the United States Army Special Operations Command. Fort Bragg is also home to the Joint Special Operations Command, XVIII Airborne Corps,  the US Army Reserve Command headquarters, the Womack Army Medical Center, and two airfields, one of which is the airlift point for Fort Bragg’s Global Response Force, which consists of Special Forces and Brigade Combat Teams.

So, there is a lot going on at Fort Bragg.

The new floating PV installation will be right in the thick of the action. Located on the Big Muddy Lake at the remote Special Forces training site Camp Mackall, the 1.1 megawatt system is designed to provide emergency backup power in addition to supplementing grid-supplied electricity.

Emergency power backup — aka resiliency — being a key part of the plan, the solar power system will include a 2 megawatt battery energy storage system. In case of a sudden power outage, the idea is to switch seamlessly off the grid and onto the battery.

By the way, Camp Mackall traces its history back to World War II, which makes the energy and resiliency update is all the more significant. Considering the raft of severe storms wracking the US in recent years, a bit more energy security is a good thing.

Why Floating Solar Beats Fossil Fuels

As for who’s gonna pay for all this, if you’re thinking power purchase agreement, you’re thinking in the right direction. The new floating solar installation is part of $36 million contract that joins the utility Duke Energy with the energy services firm Ameresco for an overhaul that includes the boiler system, HVAC, lighting, and water conservation systems.

The Fort Bragg deal is a performance contract, which is similar to a PPA in that the the Army — meaning us taxpayers — is not on the hook for up-front costs. In fact, we are going to save quite a few clams. The upgrade allows for Fort Bragg to save a considerable amount of money while paying down the cost of the upgrade over a period of years.

“In year one of the performance period, the contract will result in utility cost savings for the Army of over $2 million, a reduction in site energy use of 7% and a site water use reduction of 20%,” Ameresco notes “In addition to reducing facility energy consumption, the modernization of these building systems is designed to reduce the number and frequency of equipment failures, freeing Fort Bragg personnel to focus on mission-critical activities.”

The start of construction is scheduled for November, which is just around the corner, so stay tuned for more on that.

Adding to the interest, the new contract comes under Duke’s Federal Services cluster, so it’s possible that the floating solar array at Fort Bragg could become a model for additional projects.

In any case, the Army and other branches of the Armed Services can take credit for helping to push the market for commercial solar technology during the Obama administration. The cost of solar has fallen, and both the resiliency and readiness benefits are coming into focus, so why should the US military stop pushing now?

floating solar panels renewable energy
The floating solar power field is getting a shot of adrenaline from the world’s largest military facility, Fort Bragg in North Carolina (photo depicts a floating solar array in Colorado; credit Dennis Schroeder).

Wait, Why Are Solar Panels Floating Now?

As for why floating solar panels, that’s a good question.

Avoiding the cost of site preparation is one advantage, as there is no ground to level. Water can also provide a cooling effect that boosts solar cell efficiency and enables solar panels to be arranged in greater density, maximizing the use of space. Shade issues can also be minimized or eliminated entirely on bodies of water.

Land use is another important consideration. The US, for example, is awash in human-built bodies of water that could potentially host a floating solar array, without taking farmland out of circulation or disrupting virgin habitat.

On the downside, panels that cast permanent shadows on a body of water could impact the aquatic environment, though the location of the solar panels could be shifted periodically to reduce the potential for harm.

Conversely, solar panels could actually benefit some bodies of water by reducing algae growth and reducing evaporation, making more water available for other uses.

Circling back around to Camp Mackall, floating solar panels also make sense in terms of military readiness. The nation’s sprawling training facilities are already being stressed by population encroachment as well as climate impacts, and floating solar provides an opportunity to improving resiliency without sacrificing land to conventional ground mounted solar arrays.

More Floating Solar Panels For The US

The US Department of Energy, for one, is a huge fan of floating solar. In 2018, the agency’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory ran the numbers and came up with a conservative estimate of more than 24,400 human-made reservoirs, ponds, and other water bodies that could be suitable for floating PV development in the US.

That’s conservative, as in factoring in financial considerations in addition to technical feasibility. The study culled its 24,400 candidates from a longer list, based on the potential to compete against high rates for grid-supplied electricity in parts of the US.

If those sites were developed, NREL estimates that floating solar could provide for 10% of the nation’s electricity supply.

The US has some catching up to do if it hopes to come out ahead in the floating solar race. Waterborne solar panels are already becoming a thing in The Netherlands and Albania, where Norway’s Statkraft A-list renewable energy developer is weighing in with a 2 megawatt PV array aimed at maximizing the solar cell efficiency boost from proximity to water.

Make America A Solar Energy Leader Again

American innovators put the US in the global pole position for solar energy leadership back in the early years of solar cell commercialization during the 20th century, when the technology was expensive and mainly confined to outer space and other niche applications, or bandied about by off-gridders and DIY-ers.

Those days of commercial leadership are long gone, but the Energy Department is determined to recapture them by snagging the lead in new 21st century solar technology. CleanTechnica has spilled a lot of ink on the agency’s efforts to promote new perovskite solar cells, and now it looks like floating solar panels are in the running.

NREL recently ran down the prospects for global domination and decided that a collaborative approach would be the most effective way to keep the US front and center in the floating solar race, considering that the technology is already taking hold in Japan and other parts of the world.

NREL “is a leader in FPV and is looking to develop international implementation, analysis, and research collaborations to further advance the technology and support global deployment,” the lab noted in a recent floating PV concept paper.

The paper includes a list of benefits that apply to the global renewable energy market. In addition to relieving land use issues in countries where land is already stressed, NREL noted that floating solar panels could bring revenue generation to new areas. Also, co-locating solar panels with hydropower facilities could provide for power system benefits.

The Energy Department’s global focus is interesting, coming as it does in the context of a presidential administration that is keen to help fossil fuel stakeholders stay afloat. Well, presidents are not forever — at least not according to the Constitution of the United States of America. The agency’s efforts will keep America in the running for a place in the sparkling green global economy of the future.

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Photo (cropped): “Floating PV being installed in Walden, Colorado. (Photo by Dennnis Schroeder/NREL)

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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