September 21, 2023

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The Extraordinary Design

North Provides a Laboratory for Energy Efficiency

3 min read

Thule Air Force Base sits on the west coast of Greenland overlooking an iceberg-studded Baffin Bay.

It gets cold there, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle. So cold in fact that the U.S. Air Force decided it could save money by upgrading the facility’s heating system.

The Arctic has been used to test new construction methods for many years. For instance, oil field construction in Alaska proved a laboratory for coming up with creative engineering techniques and procedures as companies worked to limit their footprint during exploration and construction. Often, those practices resulted in improved, money-saving techniques. That concept of energy efficiency is now catching on all over the globe.

At Thule, the duties fell to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District, which manages construction-related activities ranging from dormitories to runways. The base has a 10,000-foot runway, gets about 3,000 international flights a year and supports the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Air Force Space Command.

According to Corps officials, installing a new, more energy-efficient heating system for the base could save about $3 million a year in fuel costs. The Corps said it recently completely two new boilers at the installation and both are now being monitored.

“Three more boilers will be built this coming summer when the weather is more suited to construction,” officials said in a post on the agency’s website. “The boilers are replacing a boiler system that was originally installed in the 1980s.”

The post includes a photo of a crew investigating the underside of the one of the base buildings. The building is elevated, sitting on fat posts. The intent is common in the Arctic where the ground is permanently frozen. Standard construction methods there don’t work. An in-ground foundation would melt the permafrost, eventually causing the building to settle, crack and possibly fall apart.

While the Arctic offers a great laboratory, there has been a vast learning curve for those building in its extreme conditions. The North offers a harsh unforgiving environment that’s very difficult to navigate. Much of the installations now up on the North Slope for instance are made up of modules and buildings fabricated in the Lower 48 states and barged up to the Arctic Ocean in the ice-free months of summer.

Many of the structures are huge. As a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce in the 1980s, I got to see the off-loading of some of these self-contained facilities slowly tractored to their final resting places. They also were installed onto posts.

In my relatively short tenure as a 49th state reporter (a decade if you count my part-timing in college), I was able to gauge the improvement of construction methods as time passed. Mostly what I saw were thicker walls walls and better insulation practices that developed over time. No doubt many of those facilities I watched get installed are now undergoing either energy efficiency upgrades or being mothballed for new and improved versions.

All in all, the Great White North (Bob and Doug McKenzie reference) is a great place to test net-zero construction methods. If it works there, it’ll work anywhere.

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