By Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Radar equipment from the 1960s era required so much energy, it needed its own coal-fired power plant to operate. When the radar was upgraded to a more efficient unit, the plant generated too much power. Switching to a suitable energy source, however, is not as easy as turning off a switch.
The coal powered combined heat and power plant at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, burned the last of its coal and shut down in January. A new energy source, connecting Clear to the public power grid, first powered portions of the facility in December 2015 and became fully operational when the coal plant was shuttered.
“The old radar was replaced by a phased array radar that uses a fraction of the energy the older radar required,” said Brian O’Leary, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron energy manager.
“Initially the project was scheduled to transition in the summer months when the construction weather is optimal in the sub-arctic climate,” said Maj. Scott Howe, 13th Space Warning Squadron missions support officer. “The actual construction timelines pushed the transition into December in the middle of the darkest, coldest part of the winter.”
The upgraded radar was still powered by the coal plant, which generates the same amount of energy if it is up and running. Because coal-generated energy can’t be tapered off, a great deal of it was wasted. Conserving energy was not a high priority because the facility created considerably more than needed.
“It’s changed the culture of energy use at Clear AFS,” O’Leary said.
With any new facility and change in system, lessons were learned, said Howe.
“The best way I can explain this is going from a rotary phone to an iPhone 7,” he explained. “The heat and power system is much smaller with far greater processing, monitoring and data producing capability with the same end product.”
Decommissioning the coal plant was a process several years in the making. A study in 2010 revealed that decommissioning the plant would be the best move. The shift to a more efficient and environmentally friendly energy system came to being in the beginning of 2016. The coal plant was decommissioned and Clear AFS was connected to the Golden Valley Electric Association grid. A new steam plant was brought online to provide heating.
Additionally, two new substations — one inside the Clear fence line and one outside — and about three miles of transmission lines were added to modernize Clear’s energy system.
Because the project took place at a no-fail mission facility, the work was completed in phases to assure there would be no lack of power at any time. O’Leary said it added a level of complexity to the entire process.
The actual tie-in ended up being seamless because of the work done ahead in preparation for the final connections.
“The transition to the electric grid was made in three steps so when the final connection was made and transitioned, there was no question the system would work,” said Howe.
Since the grid tie-in went into effect, Clear AFS’ energy consumption is significantly less than it was when utilizing coal for its power requirements. Average monthly energy use dropped 82 percent after going on the grid.
Decommissioning the facility helped Clear progress toward the usage goals mandated under Executive Order 13693. In some cases, since the tie-in, they are greatly exceeded. For example, energy intensity for fiscal year 2016 is expected to see a 62 percent reduction versus a 2 1/2 percent goal. The goal for increasing renewable electric energy for fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017 is not less than 10 percent, but is already at nearly 17 percent and should increase in 2017.
There are environmental benefits of closing the coal-fired facility. Clear’s air emissions have been reduced and quantities of hazardous materials required to maintain the aged power plant area less.
“As we decommissioned the CHPP, we processed and removed more than 50,000 pounds of oils, lubricants and petroleum products needed on site. We also stopped burning 150-185 tons of coal per day on site for our heat and power,” Howe said.
Clear is typically the highest energy user in the wing, when using coal, O’Leary said. Decommissioning the coal plant should lower average energy consumption by the wing significantly. Because of the logistical challenges related to operating the half-century-old facility, the changes will reduce the total cost of energy at Clear by more than $1.5 million annually.
Bringing together a more efficient energy source to match its equipment, things will be looking up at Clear AFS for years to come.