Eielson powers its own mission

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew Rosine
  • Air Force Print News
Every morning, as Airmen here drive onto base, they are greeted by friendly waves -- waves of billowing steam stretching into the crisp morning sky.

This steam is more than just hot air. It is the life's blood of the base, and it comes from the central heat and power plant here.

"It is unique," said Marty Overlin, the superintendent of the power plant. "It is a prime operation -- full generation facility. We produce not only all the electricity for Eielson Air Force Base but also all the heating.

"It is the most critical infrastructure of the base," he said. "Without the power plant, obviously, the base would not exist."

To meet the base's heating and electrical needs, the power plant must generate hundreds of thousands of pounds of steam every hour.

"It's going to depend on the temperature and the time of year, a day like today -- roughly 20 below -- we are producing about 380,000 pounds of steam," Mr. Overlin said. "We are diverting roughly 250,000 pounds of steam just for heating the base. The remainder of the steam is used to make electricity for the base."

To generate this much power every hour, the plant uses Alaskan black gold -- not oil, but coal.

The coal arrives at the power plant by train. In fact, the base has its own railroad -- the second largest railroad in Alaska and the largest in the Air Force. The train pulls multiple cars of coal into the facility every day. Due to the incredibly low temperatures in Alaska in winter, these coal cars are placed into a holding area inside the plant. This allows the coal to unfreeze before it is eventually dumped into the plant's coal bunkers.

The power plant houses six coal bunkers. Each can hold up to 200 tons of coal. The coal, after being broken down into smaller pieces, is fed into the furnaces for the power plant's boilers. 

The power plant will consume more than 42,000 pounds of coal an hour on average, Mr. Overlin said. On extremely cold days, he said the plant has burned up to 60,000 pounds in a single hour.

This steam is routed into a common header, then fed to the base's power turbines.

"The turbines are an extraction stage," Mr. Overlin said. "Roughly half way through, we extract the steam to heat the base. The remaining steam then goes back and turns a common shaft, which is a generator to produce the electricity around the base."

Despite using less than half of the steam production for electrical power, the plant's turbines can generate millions of watts of electricity every day.

While the plant consumes more than 187,000 tons -- 374 million pounds of coal per year -- the plant is environmentally friendly.

"We have numerous environmental controls," Mr. Overlin said. "One of the big pluses is low-sulfur coal that we get from the coal mine. We did have some particulate matter that was a little high, so the base installed 100-percent, slipstream bag-houses that remove all particulate matter coming out of the tower."

These precautions along with the plant's other programs help meet and exceed their environmental protection goals.

Having the plant at Eielson provides a unique mission capability to the Alaskan base.

"We do not have to rely on others to bring in power," said Capt. Milton Addison, the chief of operations at the power plant. "We are geared that way if we need to, in times of outages or if something goes wrong. But, we are self sufficient."

Originally, the plant went online in 1951. The first four boilers were also installed in 1951 and are still operating. In fact, plant personnel call them the "power boilers." Two additional boilers were installed in 1954.

 And, while the power plant is meeting today's Air Force needs. The base is preparing for the future.

"We are looking at some modernization," Mr. Overlin said of a new plant control system being installed this summer. "We are looking to the future to replace a couple of our older boilers ... in the next four to five years."

And since 1951, as Airmen drive onto base here, if they see steam rising from the vent tower, they know they will have heat and power to accomplish their mission. 

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