Robins home to Southeast’s first-of-its-kind solar technology

  • Published
  • By Wayne Crenshaw
  • 78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Robins has been a leader in testing alternative power technologies, but perhaps no other effort has been as visible to the general base populace as a solar panel that was just installed.

The gleaming panel, about the size of a drive-in movie screen, cannot be missed by anyone heading down Robins Parkway. Located just behind Bldg. 359, the panel incorporates state-of-the-art technology and produces a peak of 25 kilowatts of electricity.

At a cost of approximately $434,000, it was installed by the Air Force's Advanced Power Technology Office using special congressional funding for renewable energy sources. The office, located at Robins, pursues Air Force-wide alternative energy uses.

Robert David, an engineering supervisor and head of the APTO office, said the solar panel is the first of its kind in the Southeast. What makes it unique, he said, is that it incorporates sensor technology that allows it to automatically track the sun with concentrated photovoltaic array technology that amplifies the sun's power 500 to 1,000 times.

That is done with the use of what are essentially magnifying glasses. In other words, it basically uses the same technology that little boys use to kill ants.

"Of that amount of sun that hits it, you are capturing 38 percent of the energy of that light," he said.

If that sounds low, consider that earlier solar panels captured only about eight percent of the sun's energy, said Scott Slyfield, APTO program manager.

The benefits are that with a projected lifespan of at least 25-years, the 25 kilowatts of electricity that it produces will practically be free, aside from a minimal amount of maintenance work that must be done. However, David noted that considering the high capital cost, it still would be more expensive than standard electricity.

That could change if the Air Force decides to purchase solar panels on a larger scale, bringing down the upfront cost.

"If you had farms of these, it could become more economical," David said.

The solar panel is actually part of a dual green-power initiative. Although the power that it generates will go directly to the base power grid, it is intended to offset that power used by a newly-installed hydrogen fuel production/refueling station.

The station, located within a short walk of the solar panel, produces 10 kilograms of hydrogen per day from water. The hydrogen is used to fuel two base forklifts with hydrogen fuel cells.

When Congressional funding became available for green energy, the APTO office thought the solar panel and hydrogen station would make a good dual project.

The solar panel is here for a one-year demonstration. The base can decide to keep it after that year.

The solar panel is operated by a computer in a nearby building, and it also has its own weather station. If the wind gets too high, the panel will automatically stow, returning to a flat position to avoid any damage. It will even track the sun and produce energy, albeit at a lower level, on a cloudy day.