Army selects natural gas-fired heat system for Fort Wainwright

Fort Wainwright power plant
Fort Wainwright’s central heat and power plant has been in use since 1955 — one of the oldest coal-fired power plants still in operation in the United States. But in recent years, it’s become increasingly inefficient and has had several problems, at least four of which led to power failures. (File/KUAC)

The U.S. Army is proposing to replace Fort Wainwright’s coal-fired heat and power plant with natural-gas fired boilers installed around the post. The Army must replace the 65-year-old power plant because it’s becoming unreliable and prohibitively expensive to operate.

Army officials announced their proposed choice in a Final Environmental Impact Statement made public on Feb. 10. They considered building a $687 million replacement coal plant and a $363 million facility that would run on either diesel or natural gas. But they opted instead for the $117 million distributed natural gas-fired boilers alternative. A fourth alternative would have allowed the old plant to continue operating.

a planned Fort Wainwright power plant solution
An architectural rendering of Alternative 3, which calls for construction of several high-efficiency natural gas-fired combustion turbine boilers around Fort Wainwright that also could burn diesel. The boilers would provide heat and backup power, but on a day-to-day basis the post would get its electricity from Golden Valley Electric Association. (From U.S. Army)

“The U.S. Army Garrison Alaska has identified that third alternative as the preferred alternative,” says Jennifer Meyer, chief of Fort Wainwright Directorate of Public Works’ operations and maintenance division. Meyer says the Army can’t yet say much about the natural-gas system or the timeframe in which it’ll be built. But she says it’ll likely take a while.

“Pretty much any Army construction projects takes several years, from start to finish,” she said in an interview Friday.

The old heat and power plant has been in service 30 years beyond its average design life, and it’s become one of the Army’s most expensive to operate. Post officials say it’s broken down four times in recent years, and on one cold winter day in 2018 it was offline for several hours.

“The Army mission here is at some risk, with a single source of heat that is that old,” said Stephen Stringham, a former Fort Wainwright Utilities Privatization and Maintenance Division chief. Stringham said in a 2019 interview that the breakdowns and fires at the plant convinced post officials that the facility and much of its steam-heat distribution lines needed to be replaced.

If the plan goes ahead, the 20-megawatt Fort Wainwright heat and power plant will be the second aging military coal-fired facility in the Interior to be shut down in recent years. The first was the 22-megawatt facility that powered and heated Clear Air Force Station, which was mothballed nine years ago. And last year, Air Force officials announced they’ll begin building a small nuclear microreactor in 2025 to serve as a possible back-up and supplemental power source for Eielson’s 20-megawatt coal-burner, which went online in 1951.

Army officials’ decision to convert Fort Wainwright to natural gas-fired heat will require a large volume of LNG to fuel it, and the Fairbanks-based Interior Gas Utility is interested in filling that demand.

“We are very excited to work with the Army in any capacity that might be needed,” says Elena Sudduth, an IGU spokesperson. Sudduth says the utility should be well-positioned to supply the post, due to a recently reached deal with Hilcorp Alaska and subsidiary Harvest to build a North Slope gas-processing plant and truck the LNG that it produces there to Fairbanks.

“The initial facility is going to be 150,000 gallons a day, and IGU needs about half of that, to begin with,” Sudduth said Friday. “So, just the initial facility alone is going to have plenty of natural gas for Fort Wainwright.”

The natural gas boilers would generate heat, but not electricity, under the current proposal. So Fort Wainwright would have to buy more power from Golden Valley Electric Association to replace the 20 megawatts that the coal plant can produce. GVEA spokesperson Meadow Bailey says that would be in additional to the power the utility already provides the post.

“Fort Wainwright is one of our larger customers,” Bailey said Friday.

Bailey says if the Army seeks a new power-sales agreement, Golden Valley officials would work to ensure it benefits all utility customers.

“We are, of course, a member-owned utility and so we exist to meet the needs of all our members, residents and businesses,” she said. “And this of course includes military installations.”

Meyer said Army officials will begin working on details like power purchases and LNG supply contracts after their decision to build the new facility is made final on March 13.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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