Fort Knox energy program working on groundbreaking initiatives for 2023, beyond

By Eric PilgrimJanuary 9, 2023

Fort Knox energy program working on two groundbreaking initiatives for 2023 and beyond
After energy manager RJ Dyrdek briefed them on how a black start exercise works, Congressional, Army and Fort Knox leaders called the installation’s resilience test on Oct. 24, 2018 a huge success. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Eric Pilgrim) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT KNOX, Ky. — Not one for relying on past successes, the award-winning energy program manager at Fort Knox’s Directorate of Public Works continues to develop plans for greater energy independence in the coming years.

R.J. Dyrdek has spearheaded a number of initiatives in the past several years that have garnered praise up the ranks, including at the Departments of Defense and Energy as well as the private sector. He’s at it again with two new initiatives that, if approved, will allow Fort Knox to generate energy independent of outside sources.

“We’re very interested in natural gas fuel cells,” said Dyrdek.

At the moment the installation is capable of producing energy at 100% up to 14 days, then at about 85% beyond that. Dyrdek said fuel cells would give the post limitless independence.

“Currently when we run past the 14-day period, and if we didn’t have outside power, we’d have to limit some things because if it was cold weather or extremely hot weather, the diesel [generators] would have to run,” he said. “In the other months they don’t have to run, but the load that we buy from the utility company is what they call ‘base load,’ and what the fuel cells have the luxury of doing is continuously running.”

That process works by feeding the cells with natural gas that produces water as a byproduct, said Dyrdek. The cells create electricity through an electro-chemical arrangement, which then provides for a steady output of energy.

The water byproduct is used to make hot and chilled water for the facility. The electricity produced runs the water treatment plant, the wastewater plant and powers all the buildings, ranges and substations.

“It all pyramids back to one thing,” said Dyrdek; “natural gas — the lynchpin, and we use it differently than everybody.”

“It’s like at your house when you use a diesel generator, if you could load that up to its very highest, it would run smooth the whole time,” said Dyrdek. “The fuel cells want to run nonstop.”

In 2019, after the energy program earned Fort Knox two Army-level awards, Dyrdek highlighted the construction of an enormous Microsoft Corporation headquarters in California that included fuel cells as an example of what they are capable of.

Fort Knox energy program working on two groundbreaking initiatives for 2023 and beyond
RJ Dyrdek, the energy program manager for Fort Knox, briefs officials from Federal Energy Management Program and the Kentucky Office of Energy Policy on how the installation’s resilience efforts work during a successful 2019 energy independence exercise. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Eric Pilgrim) VIEW ORIGINAL

“They’re powering the entire structure with fuel cells, so it’s a real emerging technology that would take away our base load,” said Dyrdek at that time.

Recently, Dyrdek noted the difference fuel cells offer compared with other forms of renewable energy.

“We don’t have 100% wind 100% of the time; you have it when it’s windy,” said Dyrdek. “Same thing with solar. You have it when the sun’s up and out as long as there are no clouds or trouble. The control aspect of fuel cells is perfectly matched to our remaining utility that we purchase from outside sources.”

There are two fuel cell products that Fort Knox is looking at purchasing: the 6.6-megawatt version would cut the baseload in half; the 12.2-megawatt would eliminate the utility dependence altogether.

“That second one is the one we’re pushing for,” said Dyrdek, who was set to meet with Army leaders about it in mid-December 2022. “It’s the right answer, and it’s a complete answer.”

If they are successful in getting the 12.2-megawatt version, Fort Knox would become the first installation in the DOD to operate indefinitely independent of external power.

The other big initiative they planned to pitch to Army leaders at the same meeting is for natural gas storage facilities. The facilities can help Fort Knox with energy costs in both directions. They can serve as a holding facility for the installation’s own natural gas production, and as storage when leaders purchase gas from outside sources.

Fort Knox energy program working on two groundbreaking initiatives for 2023 and beyond
When is a pond more than a pond? When it is used by the Fort Knox energy program to provide air conditioning to U.S. Army Human Resource Command’s data center, saving Fort Knox over $120,000 a year. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Eric Pilgrim) VIEW ORIGINAL

“The market for natural gas goes up and down throughout the year,” said Dyrdek. “In the middle of the summer, the gas is fairly cheap. In the dead of February when it’s minus 10, it’s pretty expensive.

“So, if we could buy a large volume of it in the summertime and put it in storage so we could use it when it’s expensive in the wintertime and we could easily have plenty of our own gas on site in storage, then again we wouldn’t need outside utilities for anything.”

The ability to purchase natural gas, electricity and water from outside sources will remain in place as part of the backup plan, as do the existing diesel generators and solar arrays. That pyramid, if the Army agrees to fund the fuel cell and storage initiatives, will keep Fort Knox at the forefront of energy resilience.

“Would I put natural gas at the top of that pyramid?” said Dyrdek — “Yes.”