Full Steam Ahead

  • Published
  • By Airman Magazine Staff
  • Airman Magazine

More than 63 years ago, two steam turbines were installed on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, powered by coal carved out from Alaskan rock.

The base’s residents and workers have relied on the turbines that make up the base’s central heat and power plant as their primary source for power and heat, and to this day, the plant hasn’t failed in its mission.

In fact, its responsibility has grown along with the base, as three other turbines were added to service the $7.8 billion worth of infrastructure on the remote base, which lies 26 miles away from the closest power company.

“This mission is basically the heart of the base, pushing out heat like a heart pumps blood through the veins,” said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Padgett, the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron plant superintendent.

Outside of the plant, a locomotive proudly displaying “Air Force” in white letters on a blue background while snow begins to accumulate around its wheels. During winter months, the locomotive shuttles in nearly 800 tons of coal that’s mined about 100 miles south of the base, while the coal load drops to about half that in the summer.

Nestled deep inside the heart of the plant, warm red light emanates from the boiler room floor, where small pieces of crushed coal are gravity fed into the boiler. Temperatures inside reach 1,200 degrees and heat water into steam that powers the turbines.

The first two turbines were installed in 1951 and are built like tanks hearkens back to a time of early American raw power. The kind of metal today’s Airmen might have heard their grandparents talk about.

“Things aren’t always made like they used to be,” Padgett says as he walks past the two turbines, running his hand along artwork plant workers have painted over the years, each turbine’s drawing telling a snapshot of a story. “This plant was built to last.”

Though the two turbines have been running since the 1950s, several updates have been made to ensure a long lifecycle, along with modernizing their control features to improve efficiency.

“It’s pretty cool to see that under a good maintenance program and with good operators, something 60 years old can perform this well and this long,” Padgett said.

The maintenance program has slowly increased the turbine’s efficiency, while maintaining full turbine power output.

When the first two turbines were installed, they were able to collectively sustain five megawatts of power produced for the base, according to Padgett. Today, the five turbines can produce up to 25 megawatts, requiring on average only 33 percent of the amount of steam to produce a megawatt of power.

For reference, the base averages a sustained nine to 10 megawatts of power during the summer and 13 to 15 in the winter.

According to Padgett, modernization efforts include “better emission controls, better controls on the turbines and more efficient processes. Even though the turbines are old, the controls and mechanisms that operate them are the most state of the art,” he said. The base’s in-house maintenance team performs 40 percent of these equipment modernizations and maintenance.

An easy method base leaders use to ensure the maintenance team is performing their mission is the continuous signal of white steam coming from the plant’s stacks as moisture within the coal is evaporated and expelled. Many Airmen at the base can take one look at the plant in the early morning to tell if it will be a good or bad day, according to Padgett.

“’Every morning the first thing I do is look out the window to see if steam is coming out of the plant,’” a base leader told Padgett. ‘“If I see that stack steaming, then it’s going to be a good day.’”

Considering the average January low temperature is minus 17 degrees, a bad day can be catastrophic if power and heat are lost.

“We’re at the interior of Alaska where the temps can drop to negative 50 during the winter,” Padgett said. “Eielson is a self-supporting outpost in Alaska. We provide our own water, sewer, heat and power. A basic emergency can snowball and become unrecoverable, though that has not happened in Eielson’s history.”

As Padgett leaves work for the day, he drives by base housing. Though it’s roughly 5 p.m., the Alaskan sky is already dark on this minus 10-degree day when the sun only made a brief, three-hour appearance before disappearing again.

Glancing out the window, he sees a family arrive home from their day. The kids, bundled up in their warmest clothes, are hurried into the house where warmth awaits them.

“I’m reminded every single day by the people on base of our mission here,” Padgett said. “Everyone is impacted by this plant. Every home is filled with heat from this plant. That thought never leaves my mind.”