FORT BENNING, Ga. (Aug. 17, 2018) - Visitors entering Fort Benning by the Benning Road gate may have noticed a new piece of technology greeting them shortly after they enter the post: A large mechanical flower facing into the sun.

This is a "Smartflower," installed by the Directorate of Public Works at the Environmental Learning Center in partnership with ProOrienteConsultationes and Contubernium Worldwide, and it is a solar array that opens up at sunrise, mechanically tracks the sun throughout the day, generates electricity as the photovoltaic panels convert the light to electricity, and closes at sunset.

As the sun rises, the Smartflower's programming turns its motors so that the "petals" of the flower lift up and spread out much the same way the blades of a collapsible fan spread out. And as the day progresses, the motor incrementally adjusts so the array faces the sun. At sunset, the blades fold back over one another, lower and settle beside the semi-conical base.

The goal of the Environmental Learning Center is twofold: It provides an outreach opportunity for students to learn about energy conservation efforts the Army performs, and it also serves as a training center for unit and directorate representatives who are responsible for energy management and environmental compliance. According to Kirk Ticknor, the chief of the Environmental Division for DPW, such a device can help those building managers think creatively.

"We're getting these energy managers, who are getting this training inside that building, to think outside the box," said Ticknor. "They can save energy in their building by calling in work orders or by increasing the awareness of people in the building to turn off their computers, the lights, and unplug things if they don't need them. In addition to the Smartflower providing power to our grid, it is also educational and inspirational."

On hand to initially program the machine Aug. 7 were Berndt Wesiak, the president of ProOriente Consultationes from Stettenhof, Austria, and retired Col. Wayne Morris, a Tennessee-based consultant for Prague-based Contubernium.

The electricity it produces is enough to power the Environmental Learning Center - all except the building's climate control. In optimal conditions this model of Smartflower should produce 2.31 kilowatts. This particular array, in the non-optimal Georgia heat, produces around half that.

"Here, as in central Europe, it will power a small family house, as long as you leave the air conditioner off," said Wesiak.

Beyond weather conditions, solar panels typically have three different limitations that keep them from receiving the optimal charge from sunlight. These limitations include the angle at which the sunlight strikes the panel, the temperature of the panel and contamination (dust) on the panel. The Smartflower reduces two of these problems. Because it moves with the sun, Smartflower is able to maintain near perpendicularity to the sun's rays throughout the day. The other matter, contamination by dust, the Smartflower prevents by closing at night and also sweeping its own solar blades clean as it opens and closes each day.

"Inclination and contamination factors are resolved almost to perfection," said Wesiak. "The heat factor we still have, and we can't get rid of it."

Besides the educational and training opportunity the device provides and besides the power it generates, which feeds into the electrical grid, the installers saw the device as a symbol of Fort Benning's energy conservation efforts, a part representing a larger whole.

"This is a statement that Fort Benning cares about the environment," said Morris. "It will demonstrate to people that solar power is alive and working. It's not the end-all to anything, but it's a pretty slick device to wake up in the morning, track itself around to the sun, and close down at night."

"A Smartflower is the perfect combination of a nice, visible, conspicuous program showing that you're doing something and a useful solar generator that contributes to what we all want to reach - make the world a better place," said Weziak.

Ticknor outlined efforts that Fort Benning had made to save the Army money and to harness sustainable and secure energy.

In 2016, the Army opened up the Solar Array Site on post as part of the "Georgia 3x30," one solar array site at each of three Georgia garrisons (also Fort Stewart and Fort Gordon), which have a 30-megawatt power generation capacity. This is in addition to the installation of solar panels on several of the on-post buildings. Also, a centralized computer control system monitors the heating and cooling of more than 200 buildings on post to maximize energy efficiency and comfort of the occupants. And a third ongoing initiative is the replacement of traditional streetlights and building lights with low power, longer lasting LED lights.

"The Army is really committed to reducing its energy bill," said Ticknor.

To learn more about the Environmental Management Division at U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, visit the "Related Links" on this page.