Power plant project at US base in Japan defied headwinds to finish on time
Stars and Stripes November 2, 2023
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Neither war nor a global pandemic slowed construction of a $403 million combined heat and power plant that will be unveiled Friday at this airlift hub in western Tokyo.
The plant built over two years by Schneider Electric, a French company with a U.S. subsidiary, replaces a collection of diesel generators on the air base, which is also headquarters for U.S. Forces Japan, 5th Air Force and the Japanese Air Defense Command.
The new plant with smart electronic controls uses less energy to create a power supply that is more resilient to outside threats, company executives told Stars and Stripes at Yokota on Thursday.
“There’s two kind of priorities we saw from the Air Force,” said James Potach, senior vice president for Schneider’s sustainability business. “One was mission readiness, and a driver behind that mission readiness was energy resiliency.”
The shiny new natural gas-powered, steam-driven generator just southwest of the base exchange provides more than 10 megawatts to a power “microgrid.” If needed, Yokota can become a self-sufficient, power-generating island that keeps its critical areas in business, Potach said.
The project, which includes building upgrades and 21 years of operation, maintenance and repair services, is the sixth largest energy savings performance contract from the Department of Energy to date, according to Alison Rucker, director of federal performance contracting for Schneider’s sustainability business.
It’s expected to save the Air Force $12.3 million a year and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 33,000 metric tons, according to Schneider Electric.
“The unique aspect of a performance contract is that energy conservation or reduction in cost actually funds the improvement, so all this pays for itself,” she said.
Before Friday, Yokota was susceptible to “grid instability,” meaning power interruptions caused by events like typhoons. That susceptibility was underlined when Japan took most of its 17 nuclear power plants offline following a devastating March 2011 tsunami that caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Fewer nuclear plants lowered Japan’s capacity to generate power and led eventually to the Air Force seeking improvements at Yokota, Rucker said.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic, which began less than a year before construction started, along with Russia’s war on Ukraine starting in February 2022, complicated the work, Potach said.
“Well, so, COVID, obviously, and then the restrictions on either travel and quarantining when you come in and when you come out — big strain,” he said.
The pandemic interrupted supply chains, which further complicated the Yokota project, Potach said.
“Shipping was huge,” he said.
“And then the ‘urban legend’ story that we talk about,” Potach said: the delivery to Yokota on April 13, 2022, of a critical system, the packaged electrical control module, aboard the world’s largest production transport airplane, a Ukrainian AN-124 Antonov.
“There’s sort of a military analogy here,” he said. “You make a plan and then you have to be agile and then you have to have nerves of steel.”
The 65-ton module was packed inside the cargo plane with only millimeters to spare, according to Rucker and Potach. Unloaded, the module was hauled carefully along a mile of base streets closed for the event, they said.
Despite those hurdles, the heat and power station was finished on time. Potach declined to be specific on whether the project was completed on budget, citing restrictions on disclosures by publicly traded companies.
“The project’s looking pretty darn good on both of those,” he said. “We’re happy with the results and I would like to think the base and the [Defense Department] are, as well.”