FORT SILL, Okla. -- If the hot summer sun brings to mind thoughts of a pleasant, refreshing swim, consider the Rinehart Fitness Center pool can derive most of its heat from the celestial star.

This alternative energy source is but one in use at Fort Sill, and others may soon help reduce the post's energy demands on conventional utilities.

Adjacent to the pool, on its west side, rows of solar panels provide a heat source that augments existing natural gas-fueled boilers. This renewable energy source is Fort Sill's first step into solar power and may light the way toward other projects that may soon dot the post landscape. The panels were installed by a contractor through the Army Corps of Engineers and cost Fort Sill $300,000 for this clean, safe, readily available energy.

"Fort Sill, like all government installations, receives congressional mandates and executive orders that require the post to reduce energy consumption and increase renewable energy production," said Chris Brown, Directorate of Public Works energy manager. The Army Corps of Engineers from Huntsville, Ala. did a study, and this was one of their energy conservation measures they came up with."

Fort Sill appears to be a great location for this type of system. Brown said the area is listed as an above average location for solar radiation, or sunlight. Preliminary data suggests the post is saving about 4.3 million British thermal units, which works out to about $30,000 a year in energy costs using these solar panels. Given this return on investment, the panels should pay themselves off in 10 years, though volatility of commodities markets may realize this payback scenario several years quicker.

Water is circulated through the black panels and returned to a utility room where the temperature is moderated before being sent out to the pool. Brown said because of the ongoing heat wave, the solar panels are working too well and are not in use.

"This project was a first step for Fort Sill, and the first of anything is often the toughest. Now we just need to prove to everyone it works good, and once that proof is in place we should see solar power used for other applications such as heating showers in barracks," Brown said. "Anywhere there's a water heater that system could be converted to include solar power."

The post established 84 degrees as the optimal temperature for the pool, and will continue to use boilers in the winter or during cloudy days when the sun is obscured.

Brown said DPW is starting to get some building designs coming in that include solar panels on other buildings yet to be constructed, and he expects most new buildings will probably have some sort of solar array. Of those already erected, the new Joint Fires and Effects Training System building just south of the existing system in I-See-O Hall and an adjacent building both have solar panels supporting the facilities' energy requirements.

Fort Sill's energy manager said interest in natural gas is increasing. One company would like to gather methane out of shale beds on post, clean it up and put it into a natural gas pipeline. DPW has also talked with other companies, one about drawing methane produced by the post's landfill and burning it in a generator to produce electricity. Another would like to investigate using methane produced by the waste water treatment plant to run a generator. These ideas are still on the drawing board and will have to meet environmental compliance standards before any actual work is initiated.

Already in place, Brown said Fort Sill has several geothermal wells that are used to heat or cool water. He said the earth, at only eight feet below the surface, maintains a constant temperature and water can be injected into these wells. Deeper wells see increased temperatures and that water can be used for heating purposes.

While solar, wind and other emerging energy sources may catch a lot of the headlines, energy conservation also plays a significant role in helping the post be good stewards with its energy resources. Brown said DPW surveys buildings to determine potential savings. Some projects are rather small, such as one started to install motion detectors to turn on or off lights in buildings when people are present or leave.

He said DPW controls building temperatures and can schedule when air conditioning turns off at the end of the day and initiate cooling the following morning before workers arrive to cut energy use. Another tool DPW uses is managing heating and cooling during peak use hours. These are the hours utility companies charge the most and reductions in energy can save the post money.

DPW is also working to install electric meters on all Fort Sill buildings to determine which buildings are energy efficient and which could be improved. He added people who have ideas for improving energy conservation should contact their building manager.

"If there's a great idea out there, I'm always open," Brown said.