Overcoming Alaskan-sized challenges to provide energy assurance

Evening photo of large radar array

Built during the Cold War, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System was charged with the mission of detecting potential missile launches from the Soviet Union. Today, the BMEWS site on Clear Air Force Station, Alaska is deactivated, yielding to the newer Solid State Phased Array Radar System. Photo captured June 29, 2016. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. David Salanitri)

A sign welcoming visitors to Clear Air Force Station stands next to a small road covered in snow.

Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, deep in America’s last frontier, is marked by a small sign and secluded by icy roads which are often difficult to travel in the harsh winter weather. Clear has more than 300 contractor, civilian, active duty , Canadian, and Alaska Air National Guardsmen who work seamlessly together to maintain its phased array radar system. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Shawn Nickel)

Staff Sgt. Kennett stands in front of displays in the Solid State Phased Array Radar System at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska.

Staff Sgt. Daniel Kennett, a space systems operator, works in the Solid State Phased Array Radar System at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska. Kennett is able to track something the size of a softball in space. U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. David Salanitri)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Preparing for a major power outage or planning a backup generation exercise is complicated in the best conditions. Now, imagine doing it in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska.

This is the reality the civil engineer team had to account for in planning a project that retired a 1950s-era coal-fired power plant in favor of a tie-in to the local electric grid. This project was funded through the energy resilience and conservation investment program, facilitated by the Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC) Energy Directorate’s program development division and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

During the planning and execution of this project, which spanned more than 10 years, AFCEC provided support and expertise to Clear along with the 21st Civil Engineer Squadron and Air Force Space Command, located at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, as part of a cross-organizational effort to execute this major change while minimizing mission impact.

The mission at Clear demanded that no loss of mission capability would be acceptable during the transition. However, the process included many variables that posed serious threats to mission energy assurance. Any lengthy power loss could pose significant danger to the warfighters on-site and cause major damage to facilities and equipment.

Without proper heating and power, pipes carrying both fresh and waste water could freeze and split open, facilities, equipment and vehicles become inoperable, and the lives of airmen and other base personnel could become threatened.

Successfully shutting down the existing power plant and connecting with the Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) required the base to run on back-up generation for a period of approximately one week in grueling winter conditions.

Weather was not the only challenge facing Clear; among other factors, logistics threatened the success of the project due to the base’s location in central Alaska. The lead time required to obtain a new transformer was significant and many portions of the project were limited on when and how far out they could be scheduled due to the cold conditions.

The margin for error in planning such a change-over was extremely small.

In preparation for this critical project execution task, a tiger team was formed to assess and mitigate risk to the installation and mission. The team included members of the 21st, Clear’s on-site CE team and others including Ron Herren, a retired plant manager who oversaw the original plant for 30 years.

"Having Ron come out of retirement to help us on the team was absolutely key,” said Master Sgt. Travis Oaks, project management and quality assurance superintendent. “His 30 years of experience with the plant was a critical element in ensuring that the switchover was a success."

The team supported the effort, making changes as new challenges arose through the assessment. According to Oaks, the team was instrumental in getting buy-in from command for the change-over process.

During their assessment, several risks were identified. The amount of aerospace ground equipment (AGE) heaters available was inadequate to complete the work. Additionally, the backup generator was dramatically undersized. During a normal short-term outage, load-shedding could accommodate this difference, but for a long-term outage, buildings or portions of buildings without power could result in significant facility damage.

In response to the heater shortage, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, loaned Clear an additional 30 AGE heaters, which satisfied the need they identified in contingency planning. These heaters were critical to the success of the mission, allowing for areas to be tented off for workers, preventing buildings from freezing and keeping equipment warm to ensure reliable usage.

The AFCEC Civil Engineer Maintenance Inspection Repair Team (CEMIRT) supported the transition by bringing a properly sized backup generator on-site. This generator served as Clear’s primary backup for over a year and then as standby during Clear’s power conversion.

Until the new infrastructure and backup generation construction was complete, the old plant needed to remain fully operational. During the transition, additional labor was required to man both facilities. The Air Force’s contract augmentation program, managed by AFCEC’s Readiness Directorate, filled the manpower gap during the plant decommissioning as plant personnel transitioned into new roles.

Close coordination between GVEA and the base was necessary, as both parties needed to plan for when power would be dropping or coming online.

“Our communication with the utility was critical,” Oaks said. “Due to potential mission impact, we had to have a very clear plan for coming online and GVEA was an important partner through the entire process.”

During project planning, AFCEC’s Energy Directorate and legal team negotiated the details of this changeover in an interconnect agreement with GVEA. The process laid out in this agreement ensured that the mission-impact concerns of the installation and the requirements of the utility were both met.

These examples are only a snapshot of the nearly 10-year effort in executing this project.

“A project of this size requires a committed team to support and execute properly,” Oaks said. “A great deal of thanks is owed to many: our tiger team, AFCEC, the 21st, 13th SWS, AFSPC, the Alaska District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Electrical Engineer Mike Doty, Lt. Col. Jim Fitzgerald, Resident Engineer Rick Weidmaier, Quality Assurance Evaluator Steve Dahl and everyone involved in making this project possible.”

"AFCEC is proud to be one of the organizations that partnered in this effort," said Col. Timothy Dodge, AFCEC deputy director. "Clear Air Force Station is a great example of how AFCEC brings unique skillsets together to solve complex challenges while providing the best support possible to our warfighters in the field."