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Audit faults Air Force's turbines

Posted: November 13, 2011 - 10:57pm

ANCHORAGE — The Defense Department’s attempt to go green at remote radar locations in Alaska by replacing diesel generators with wind turbines was poorly planned and delays could cost millions, according to an audit by the department’s inspector general.

A test wind turbine constructed in 2008 at remote Tin City northwest of Nome was built without the benefit of a 12-month wind study. As of July it was producing “sporadic, unusable power,” according to the audit, which focuses on three projects that followed.

The Air Force in 2009, flush with economic stimulus money, awarded contracts for wind turbines at three other remote Alaska locations — Cape Newenham and Cape Romanzof in southwest Alaska and Cape Lisburne in northwest Alaska — at a cost of $4.7 million each. They have not been constructed. 

Stimulus money was supposed to go for “shovel ready” projects and the wind turbines were not, the audit said.

The contracts were signed without data from the Tin City turbine and before adequate wind studies were performed, the audit said. They lacked documentation that they would be more cost effective than diesel power, according to the audit, and the Defense Department did not ensure that the projects were selected appropriately for stimulus funding.

Auditors concluded each would rack up an estimated $1 million in cost overruns based on 2012 construction costs.

The audit faults the 611th Civil Engineering Squadron based at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage. Elmendorf engineers told auditors that multiple turnovers in project managers and lost project files contributed to mistakes. Air Force officials elaborated on that Thursday in an e-mail response to questions.

Deployments overseas affected the engineering workload of those who remained, as did unexpected turnover in project management. Alaska’s short construction season added to the challenge. 

“These projects are complex and challenging, both technically and in terms of aligning construction seasons and complex supply-chain constraints,” said Lt. Col. Eric Hoversten, former commander 611th CES and current deputy commander 611th Air Support Group.

He said the Air Force continues to learn vital lessons that will benefit future initiatives and the Alaska projects will diversify its energy portfolio to sustainable sources.

“The projects still show a lifecycle cost savings — payback which will result in lower energy costs and dollar savings in the future,” he said.

The Tin City wind turbine was completed in October 2008 by the Air Force as a test to determine energy savings.

Completing a wind study, the audit said, would have provided Elmendorf engineers with information necessary to determine the best location for the Tin City wind turbine. However, no wind test was done and it was built in an area with turbulent winds and produces sporadic, unusable power, engineers told auditors.

Contracting personnel at Elmendorf in August 2009 awarded a $485,000 contract modification at Tin City to correct power integration issues. The Air Force installed an uninterrupted power supply system to aid in sustaining continuous power to critical components and upgrades to the digital controls system.

The Air Force said in its e-mail response the system still is not operating and continues to experience electrical problems believed to be caused by moisture in critical controls circuitry. The Air Force is working to make repairs.

The three additional wind turbines were selected for Recovery Act funding in 2009. The economic stimulus money was aimed at creating new jobs, preserving existing ones and encouraging economic development. The law, auditors noted, required prudent management but included an expectation that appropriated funds would be spent quickly.

The Defense Department received about $7.16 billion in stimulus money, auditors said, including $120 million directed toward military energy conservation. Most of the Air Force share for energy conservation was designated for the Alaska radar sites.

The Air Force awarded contracts for the three wind turbine projects to CH2M Hill Constructors, Inc. on Sept. 26, 2009.

For the three additional wind turbines, auditors said, Elmendorf’s Civil Engineer Squadron did not provide adequate internal controls for planning. Engineers concluded that savings made the projects a reasonable investment over the life of the wind turbines. However, engineers did not provide documentation for that conclusion, the audit said.

The Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency later determined they may not be cost effective.

Auditors said Elmendorf engineers did not ensure that 12-month wind studies had been completed before the projects were selected for Recovery Act funding. Wind studies, auditors said, would have helped confirm the viability of the site and calculate projected savings.

Lessons learned from the Tin City experience, the audit said, demonstrated a clear need for a 1-year wind study before determining the best location for a wind turbine tower.

Cape Newenham has been dropped because a wind study indicated winds were too turbulent, the Air Force said in its e-mail response.

Construction is scheduled to begin in late spring on the other two projects, the Air Force said, but delays have added to the expense.

“The unique nature of these projects favored inclusion of design with the construction under a design-build delivery,” the Air Force said Thursday by e-mail. “There have been delays in the design phase of the project that have impacted the projected construction schedule. A multitude of challenges associated with constructing in remote Alaska limit construction opportunities; key actions on the critical path leading to the summer 2011 construction window were delayed driving additional costs.”

The contractor is on schedule to complete construction in November 2012.

“No further delays are foreseen at this time,” the Air Force said in its statement. 

The Air Force provided supplemental documentation for Cape Romanzof and Cape Lisburne wind turbines, including wind studies. Auditors called those “partially responsive” and said they could not validate payback periods for the investment.

Overall project management and contract oversight for the contracts is supplied by the Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency located at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., officials said.

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