Gulfport Seabee base generating solar power for South Mississippi

The Department of Navy and Mississippi Power on Tuesday cut the ribbon a 15-acre, $7 million solar facility at the Naval Construction Battalion Center.

This is Mississippi Power’s first solar project in its 92-year history. To have it in the company’s hometown of Gulfport and on the Seabee base makes it special, said Anthony Wilson, CEO of Mississippi Power. “It is a historic day for us,” he said.

The panels are now feeding energy into the Mississippi Power grid. The facility is not directly tied to the bases’s distribution system, said Tony Smith, renewable project manager for Mississippi Power, and it’s not enough to operate the entire base. But he said a connection could be made if the need arose due to a national security emergency or a hurricane or other natural disaster.

The 13,000 solar panels provide 3.29 megawatts, or 4 megawatts DC, which he said is enough to power about 450 homes and goes a long way toward meeting the Navy’s gigawatt goal.

“Mississippi Power makes no capital investment,” he said. Under a 25-year operating agreement, “Mississippi Power simply buys the power.”

Hannah Solar and WGL Energy invested in and built the solar facility on the base.

Pete Marte, founder and CEO of Hannah Solar, said it was built over a cleanup site that couldn’t be used for many purposes.

Tens of thousands of bolts secure the long rows of panels, which are wind-rated to protect them in a hurricane.

“It’s a very hard job to be innovative in the energy space,” said Marte, who started his company nine years ago in a spare bedroom and now has 109 employees. He said 200 subcontractorss worked on this site.

Richard Walsh with WGL Energy, grew up in Mobile and said he is happy to to show the South is moving to alternative solar energy projects. “Let’s do some more down here,” he said.

“It’s cutting-edge technology and it’s right here in South Mississippi,” said Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes. Much of this alternative energy technology is still being developed, he said, and the Coast might see wind power next.

“Many skeptics said that we would never see solar panel come on the grid in Mississippi,” said Brandon Presley, northern district commissioner with the Mississippi Public Service Commission. In approving this project, he said the commission looked at whether it was a benefit to Mississippi Power customers and found it a “very smart investment, very smart project.”

This solar facility and the one proposed in Meridian near the Naval Air Station also strengthen Mississippi’s military installations, he said, and make them less likely to be a target when the next Base Realignment and Closure Commission review occurs.

The Seabee base in Gulfport has received the Navy’s highest energy award three out of the past five years, said Rear Admiral Babette Bolivar, commander of Navy Region Southeast. Energy is the single biggest cost for the command, she said, making up 28 percent of shore expenses.

The solar facility was built in just eight months. She said a change to more efficient solar panels part-way through construction allowed the companies to use fewer panels and give eight acres back to the base.

Captain Cheryl Hansen, commanding officer of NCBC Gulfport, said the base has additional solar panels on buildings. Among other projects, outdoor lighting was replaced with LED lights, saving $127,000 a year, and reducing energy consumption by 30 percent.

Mississippi Power is doing a lot in the area of solar power, said Smith. Last week the company cut the ribbon on a 52 MW facility, the largest solar power plant in Mississippi, on 600 acres in Lamar County near Sumrall. The company also is partnering with Silicon Ranch on a 50 MW solar plant in Hattiesburg, scheduled to open later this year, and recently filed for a fourth solar facility near the Naval Air Station in Meridian.