FORT KNOX, Ky. — A small group gathered at the command center of Fort Knox’s electric grid before 6 a.m. April 13 to conduct the first of two black start exercises scheduled for the year.
Within seven minutes of getting unplugged from Louisville Gas & Electric’s grid, Fort Knox officials had the entire installation’s grid up and running independently. They maintained power for the next eight hours.
“This is certainly our best [test] of all,” said Dustin Ward, Fort Knox operations manager for Nolin Rural Electric Co-Op Corporation, or RECC. “We turned the power off by 6:06, and by 6:13 the entire installation was powered back up.”
Ward said their previous best took a little over 12 minutes to get everything back online, and even then they encountered a couple of issues with generators or even plants not starting up automatically. In this latest test, every plant came back online in record time and with no issues.
Agreeing with Ward, R.J. Dyrdek, Fort Knox energy manager at the Directorate of Public Works, exclaimed, “This was by far the best ever!”
A black start exercise, also known as an energy independence test or energy resilience readiness exercise, has been conducted semiannually at Fort Knox since April 2015, shortly after many of the pieces of the installation’s complex energy puzzle came together. Those pieces include diesel and natural gas generator plants, geothermal, and a 1-acre solar array, featuring 10,000-plus panels.
For the purpose of the April 13 test, officials decided to not include the use of solar power and focus exclusively on natural gas and diesel generation.
The concepts and hopes of bringing alternative energy sources to Fort Knox began 27 years ago. After witnessing the test prove successful, Fort Knox Garrison Commander Col. Lance O’Bryan said what started as concepts and discussions 27 years ago turned into a real movement toward energy independence after the historic 2009 ice storm that left the installation and over 600,000 homes in the surrounding areas in the dark for 10 or more days.
Weather remains a major driving force for energy independence.
“It was a focus for leadership back then that we continue today in our overall installation strategy, this energy program is a key component of that,” said O’Bryan. “What that does is it helps us focus our time and resources to ensure that we will continue to move our energy program forward.”
O’Bryan said there is an even more vital reason, however, for upgrading and modernizing energy to ensure independence.
“We have adversaries in the world that have technology that can come in and shut down grids. We’ve seen it. We know it happens,” said O’Bryan. “If we were to have an adversary come in and shut down access to the outside grid, we can continue to operate. So it goes back to readiness.
“Installations are the foundation of readiness.”
The April 13 test ran Fort Knox-only power for approximately eight hours before engineers reconnected to the LG&E power grid. Throughout the event only one issue arose. At 10:30, one power plant was knocked offline for about five minutes. No other plants were affected.
Ward blamed the loss of power on a rogue bird or squirrel.
“Normal business for an electric utility, but the reason it took that whole plant off is because we have a lot of safety factors built into these generators because they’re much smaller,” said Ward. “If you picture our generators compared to LG&E generators, they can sustain a much bigger fault than we can.”
Dyrdek considers each fault and problem to be a positive for Fort Knox engineers because it helps them tweak and fine-tune the system.
“I’m excited that little things keep happening,” said Dyrdek, “and we keep knocking them out.”
Fort Knox has the benefit of sitting above a natural gas deposit, which engineers took advantage of, tapping into it to power 11 of the 22 generators. Ward said those generators, compared with the diesel generators, have helped move the installation into a more environmentally friendly place.
“The natural gas units are state-of-the-art,” Ward said. “They’re probably some of the cleanest burning engines around, especially compared to some of the larger power plants.”
O’Bryan said it’s important that Fort Knox not only continue to improve the efficiency of its energy program, but also work to implement greener forms of power production in the future.
“It’s part of our strategy; on the timeline the next thing we’re looking at is pulling diesel offline and using other renewable resources,” said O’Bryan. “We need to better harness the energy capacity that comes off our solar fields, like a battery energy storage system ... to get in line with the Army climate strategy that just came out earlier this year, and to get to zero carbon.
One of the newest moves to greener energy sources will include the shipment of electric vehicles to Fort Knox, expected to arrive later this year, O’Bryan said.
“It’s all a movement to get off of fossil fuels, which also makes us increase our readiness,” said O’Bryan. “We don’t have to depend on someone outside the installation to burn fossil fuels to power us. We can power ourselves off of a liquid natural gas, or solar, or some of these other renewable energies.
“If we can use that, it makes us that much more protected from our adversaries.”
O’Bryan said they are also planning to run progressively longer independent test periods until they can reach 24 hours without outside help. The next test, scheduled for October, is expected to last 10 hours.