Ensuring reliable electrical power at Fort Irwin

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On Saturday, March 12, all of Fort Irwin will undergo a power outage as its primary electricity provider, Southern California Edison, will upgrade its power grid from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

During the outage, SCE will conduct maintenance work on its power grid.

In the summer of 2013, a SCE power line fell on July 22, causing several major outages. The next month, a “100-year storm” flooded many parts of this garrison and the training area, causing further electrical power related problems. Since then, SCE has replaced three wood poles with steel poles and plans to replace another 52 poles; SCE has also reinforced and installed additional guide wires on poles in areas prone to flooding.

Fort Irwin has purchased an additional 21 portable generators that can be deployed to power up critical facilities during outages. Seven additional buildings have been outfitted with manual transfer switches and generator hookups to connect to backup generators.

The Directorate of Public Works here manages issues concerning electrical power and improvements to the grid. Chris Sayre, DPW utilities engineer, and Hossam Kassab, DPW resource efficiency manager, provided the following information regarding outages and initiatives for sustainability of this installation.

How are scheduled power outages determined? The DPW tries to schedule two major outages a year, one in the spring, and one in the fall, so that power line poles, lines, switching stations, and transformers can be safely and efficiently repaired or replaced. Work on specific power lines and equipment are prioritized and completed to prevent unplanned outages in the future.

Scheduling can be complicated, therefore SCE proposes outage dates to Fort Irwin, based on field surveys conducted to check power lines, poles, and transformers for age, wear and tear. Fort Irwin reviews the dates to ensure they don’t seriously interfere with garrison operations and NTC training schedules. The best times are in the fall and spring, when the temperature is not too cold or too warm. Last year, the major planned outage for the fall was cancelled, because the proposed date conflicted with the NTC training rotation schedule.

What causes power outages? A traffic accident could bring down a pole and cause a line break. But “age, wear and tear” is the more common factor, especially because of the climate extremes of the high desert. Also, when lights blink and go out during a thunderstorm, power surging through the grid further strains the power supply chain that can later prematurely break at any point.

What does SCE have to do with power outages on Fort Irwin? A lot. While Fort Irwin is working on several ways to reduce its dependence on SCE, SCE normally provides the installation almost 100 percent of its electricity, which includes powering the hospital, restaurants, and housing units. Fort Irwin is an SCE industrial consumer and pays one monthly bill to SCE. The bill ranges from $1.7 million during the summer months for 25.9 megawatt hours of electricity, to a low of about $631,000 during the spring or fall months for about 13.2 megawatt hours. The utility company, SCE, is responsible for providing electricity and maintaining the transmission grid and power lines that ultimately channel electrical power to Fort Irwin through a single, lateral 115 kilovolt line fed from a major power transmission corridor between Las Vegas and Southern California. 

Who else may be responsible for power outages?

The components (transformer substations, power poles, underground conduits, legacy buried cables) carrying electricity to and on Fort Irwin are maintained by SCE. From there, the Army or the Residential Communities Initiative and its private partners are responsible for the last hundred or more feet up to the wall outlets in the buildings.

Why does it take so long to get power restored after an unplanned outage?

The electric grid is complex, with many links in the power supply chain, starting from the generator plants, through the SCE transmission towers, transformers, power lines, more transformers, and “the last mile” of above-ground and below-ground lines that ties our building to the power grid.

How long it takes depends on whether it’s a major or minor repair, availability of required parts for repair or replacement, and availability of construction crews and equipment.

The nearest SCE maintenance crews work at a Barstow field office near WalMart. To ensure their safety, a repair team of three to five linesmen must first be assembled, before they roll out to Fort Irwin. From the time a call is made, two hours or more may be needed. Also, when a major thunderstorm cause many outages, SCE must prioritize where they go first.

What other factors affect outages?

Load factor is important. Fort Irwin is part of the SCE Southern California power grid. When unusually hot and humid weather hits the region, the millions of air conditioning and cooler units that feed off the Southern California power grid eat up a lot more energy. Accordingly, SCE has to stoke more energy into the grid, at premium cost, to meet the demand of its consumers. The less electricity Fort Irwin uses during such times, the less electricity SCE has to provide us, and the more it can send to other customers on its power grid. Last summer, between July 1 and Sept. 11, Fort Irwin residents, Soldiers, and employees were asked on eight different days, to set their thermostat to 78 degrees, turn off lights, computers, and printers not in use, and to delay using washers and dryers between late morning and 8 p.m. That savings was passed on to Fort Irwin and other bill payers who reduced their energy usage during such periods of high demand.

A similar program is available for homeowners getting SCE power. They can sign up for SCE’s Summer Discount Plan to reduce their electrical bill at the SCE website.

How are the meters used on central air conditioning units in RCI housing?

Fort Irwin housing is included in the SCE discount plan, through the housing contractor. In 2002 and 2003, small cycling devices were installed on housing central air conditioning units, allowing SCE to remotely turn off and on the compressor of these cooling units for 15 minutes every half hour, up total maximum of six hours a day. It may get slightly warmer during that time, but the compressor then kicks in after 15 minutes, to cool the air until the next turn-off cycle.

Is Fort Irwin working to reduce its dependence on SCE for its electrical power?

The short and long answers are yes. We are beginning to use more alternate energy sources, especially solar power. Still, while alternate energy technology has grown rapidly in recent years, getting most of our power from SCE is still cheaper and more reliable than generating it on Fort Irwin.

Short term, you may have notice that many solar panels are already mounted on street lights, foot paths, and roofs of large parking garages. These convert solar energy directly to electrical energy, which are stored in small batteries on the fixtures for later use at night. They are not very efficient, so they are best used in isolated areas.

Fort Irwin is already or will soon get some electrical power from other renewable energy sources such as:

Concentrated photo-voltaic solar farm. This 1-Megawatt pilot plant on Goldstone Road has movable panels that follow the sun for maximum efficiency and concentration of solar energy. It has been operational since July 2015.

Hospital solar-voltaic power plant. The new Weed Army Community Hospital now under construction will have a large solar farm next to it. It will provide the hospital with 2.4 megawatts, 100 percent of its projected daily average consumption. The rooftop of the new hospital will also have a solar thermal system to heat water for washing and cleaning.

Waste to energy plant. A privately constructed waste to energy plant at the north end of Fifth Street is expected to become operational later this year. It will take Fort Irwin’s municipal waste, and through pyrolysis, convert it into a synthetic natural gas which will be burned to create 1-2 megawatt hours of electricity. The plant will also reduce Fort Irwin’s municipal waste to about 15 percent of its former volume, greatly reducing its landfill and disposal costs.

Photo-voltaic solar farm outside front gate. In the works is another photo-voltaic solar farm outside the front gate, a 15 megawatt farm spread over 150 acres. This project is under review by the Army Office of Energy Initiative.

Direct Digital Control. By this summer, most of Fort Irwin facilities will be equipped with direct digital control, a facility environmental monitoring and control system that will sense in real time, the air temperature inside and outside buildings. It will continuously adjust temperature, humidity and ventilation to standards set by the Army.

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