Fort Benning Unveils $40 Million Solar Facility

U.S. Army photo
U.S. Army photo

Surrounded by acres of solar panels on the western edge of Fort Benning, Army and Georgia Power Company officials celebrated on Wednesday a joint project that will produce renewable energy for the post.

The $40 million facility, built in about two years after it gained the required state approval, has 134,000 solar panels over more than 240 acres off 101st Airborne Road near the Uchee Creek recreational area on the Alabama side of the post.

Brig Gen. Eric Wesley, commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, said the expanded use of renewable energy sources is a national security issue.

"First, every dollar that we save goes to the readiness of soldiers and training," Wesley said. "There is no doubt that a number of shared interests aligned here. There were very few road blocks and that tells you it was the right thing to do."

It will produce about 17 percent of the electricity needed to power Fort Benning, officials said. The project is a response to a directive from President Barrack Obama to secure renewable energy sources on U.S. military installations. In addition to Fort Benning, similar Georgia projects are underway at Fort Gordon, Fort Stewart and the Naval submarine base at Kings Bay.

There is also one planned for the Marine Corps Logistic Base in Albany. Georgia Power invested $70 million in the Fort Benning project and will put about $400 million in the combined Georgia military projects. The government has provided a 35-year easement on the property for Georgia Power to construct the facilities.

The Department of Defense is the largest single consumer of the nation's energy supply, with the Army the largest consumer within the DoD, said Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment Katherine G. Hammack. The Army spends about $1.3 billion on energy annually, Hammack said.

"To ensure the effectiveness of the mission, we must ensure access to energy sources," she said.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Georgia Democrat who supported the project, agreed.

"The strength of American readiness depends on a ready and reliable supply of energy," said the congressman, whose district includes Fort Benning.

It is a long-term investment, said Georgia Power Co. Vice President William "Norrie" McKenzie.

"Around our office, we say that success has many parents and failure walks around saying, 'Who's your daddy?'" McKenzie said. "This project has been so successful that it can be celebrated on both Mother's Day and Father's Day combined."

The solar projects became more feasible in 2013 when the cost of the panels decreased, McKenzie. Georgia Power won approval from the state Public Service Commission in January 2014.

"This child grew quickly," McKenzie said.

It took 269 workers and almost 260,000 man hours to construct the facility that rises out of the rolling terrain.

The speed in which the project was approved and built was not lost on Hammack.

"I think this dispels the notion that the federal government is hard to work with," Hammack said. "Once we agreed on the terms and conditions, Georgia Power was a great teammate. This is what right looks like and we will hold it up as an example across the United States that this is how to do this."

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