The Last Frontier: Alcan Electrical and Fullford Electric Inc. tackle projects in Alaska

View of the twilight sky in Alaska at a construction site | Alcan Electrical / Bruce Davis
There is no actual daylight in Northern Alaska in January. Five hours of twilight starts at 11 a.m. on the North Slope | Alcan Electrical / Bruce Davis

In Alaska, just across the Bering Strait from Asia in the northwest extremity of the United States, vulnerability to air attack is an ongoing concern. Clear Air Force Station, in the center of the state about 80 miles south of Fairbanks, was a World War II Army airfield. It is now a U.S. Air Force radar station set up to detect incoming intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)’s command center, a combined organization of the United States and Canada that provides aerospace warning, air sovereignty and protection for both nations.

Long range discrimination radar

Alcan Electrical & Engineering Inc., Anchorage, and Fullford Electric Inc., Fairbanks, two of Alaska’s largest contractors, completed portions of the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) project, an early-warning radar system that is part of a $784 million contract with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s defense strategy to protect the country from ballistic missile attack. The system provides continuous radar.

Fullford’s was the first project of the LRDR system. It was bid out in several packages beginning in June 2017 and finished in May 2020. Fullford’s construction package, done under a joint venture between UNIT Co., Anchorage, and Arctic Slope Regional Corp., Utqiagvik, Alaska, included the site infrastructure, an outdoor substation and the mission control facility.

The crew of approximately 30 workers installed medium-voltage power, interior distribution, lighting, fire alarm, lightning protection, security, communications and a power control management system within a 50,000-square-foot high-altitude electromagnetic pulse-shielded (HEMP) building.

“This was a highly complex project with a lot of systems including an exterior utility substation on a remote site,” said Lael Fullford, president and senior estimator with Fullford Electric.

“Our crews were dealing with extremely high voltages and working in extreme weather conditions throughout the course of construction, but we have built many other complex and remote projects in the past,” Fullford said. “What sets us apart is that we have management and a workforce that is well-versed in heavy industrial and complex electrical systems. One of our specialties includes installation of heavy electrical switchgear and medium-voltage switchgear, and we have a communications division that was able to install all of the complex copper and fiber optic communications systems and a powerline division, so we were able to perform work in the outdoor substations.”

Alcan, owned and operated by Alaskans with a staff of more than 200, provides electrical and telecommunications construction for projects ranging from office buildings to roads to power lines. The company completed a different package of the LRDR system from 2019–2020, working with general contractor Davis Constructors and Engineers of Anchorage to develop a building information model of a four-story, 80-foot-high building that supports a radar array designed by Lockheed Martin, North Bethesda, Md. The array scans the sky to the edge of the atmosphere for potential incoming threats. The windowless, unstaffed building was adjoined to the first LRDR project done by Fullford.

All equipment in the building is designed to support the mission. Due to the risk of seismic activity, building in the area necessitates significant steel bracing and requires coordinated layouts for maintaining access to mechanical and electrical equipment. Alcan completed seismic certifications through multiple engineers to ensure that G-forces at each level would withstand the parameters of a magnitude 5 earthquake.

“Certifications were approved by the general contractor, Davis Constructors and Engineers, and the design team on the Lockheed Martin side,” said Jesse Hale, Alcan project manager.

Alcan also installed the building’s support systems of fire alarm, security, fiber optic and telecommunications infrastructure, as well as the primary electrical systems supporting the dedicated radar equipment, to protect against earthquakes and the possibility of disabling electrical effects in the event of nuclear attack.

“Everything is exposed and there are many redundancies within the power system itself,” Hale said. “The entire facility is surrounded by a HEMP barrier,” which required close coordination, with special emphasis upon the HEMP barrier. “Our crew topped out at 28 electricians. Our schedule was focused on the handoff to Lockheed Martin to ready the facility for installation of the radar equipment.”

Alaskan weather effects

Fullford and Alcan crews dealt with challenging weather conditions.

“During the summer, the mean temperature is 85°F, and dehydration is the primary concern,” said Chrys Fleming, project manager at Alcan, “but during the winter months, temperatures sink to –40°F below. When work outside is necessary, and it often is, we wear special clothing including white boots layered with insulation, making for the appearance of very large footwear, commonly referred to as ‘bunny boots’ in Alaska, and we keep all motorized equipment, trucks and forklifts running all day long, even when parked, due to the risk of the fluids freezing. Auxiliary electric heaters keep the equipment warm at night.”

Waste disposal facility after assembly, surrounded by snow | Alcan Electrical / Bruce Davis
The fully assembled waste disposal facility on the North Slope accepts drilling waste, starting with truck deliveries in the tent. |  Alcan Electrical / Bruce Davis

Weather shelter for F-35s

In 2019, Alcan—as subcontractor to general contractor Davis Constructors & Engineers in Anchorage—participated in construction of a 16-bay weather shelter for F-35 jets at Eielson Air Force Base, 100 miles northwest of Clear Air Force Station. The new jets were designed to defend against threats to the U.S. mainland. The project, which cost $89.2 million, began at the end of 2017 with a crew that peaked at 28 and was completed in September 2020.

“Encapsulating jets loaded with fuel inside of hanger bays presents risks that must be addressed with protective systems, particularly against the potential of fire. From top to bottom, flame detectors and photoeyes provide the necessary monitoring,” Hale said.

The shelters are typically designed to be open on either side like carports, though adjustments had to be made due to the region’s weather. Each of the 16 F-35s is parked in an individual bay, with two of the bay’s walls fully populated with equipment and electronics devoted to service and support of the jets, including a fire-detection and foam extinguishing system that puts out fire while keeping the plane intact without damage, followed by pressure washing. The other two walls support massive hanger doors that allow the F-35s to be easily pulled in or out of a bay.

“All of the trades were able to agree on the location of their own equipment, so we were able to duplicate the installation 16 times with some variations. We were really proud that we were able to have a design to carry over because that enabled us to be able to prefabricate and therefore stream the process, which we did through CAD,” Hale said.

Waste disposal facility

From August 2019 to February 2020, an Alcan crew worked with Schlumberger, an oil field services provider based in Bartlesville, Okla., on construction of a waste disposal facility for drilling operations by BP, Houston. The project was on Alaska’s North Slope area in Prudhoe Bay by the Beaufort Sea. The fragile tundra on the North Slope could not withstand fabrication of the waste facility on-site. Alcan’s crew built 13 different modules at an Anchorage steel yard to be fitted together later. Inside different modules, the crew welded motor control centers into place, distributed electrical feeders, and installed primary electrical and air handling equipment and boilers for heating water.

For transport to Prudhoe Bay, the modules were stacked three high in a configuration sized to the roadway limitations for trailers capable of hauling them the 600-plus miles from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay on the Dalton Highway. This route is basically a gravel road with poor visibility and enormous pot holes, and sometimes portions of it can be closed due to road work or severe Arctic weather.

“You are not allowed to drive the road without emergency cold-weather gear, in case you get stuck,” Davis said.

Upon safe arrival in Alaska’s North Slope area, the modules were reassembled and mounted on pilings that had been driven into the ground by another contractor. The strength of the mounting depended on the pilings freezing in place, an unpredictable weather condition that affected the construction.

Once the modules were in place, Alcan’s crew made sure everything was electrically connected.

“We’d already mounted the light fixtures in each individual module, then we ran all kinds of cable inside the modules to connect everything between one module to another and then connected the modules together as one building with entrances and exits. During shipping the modules were containers with equipment that was installed but not activated. After arrival the modules became a permanent structure, a waste treatment facility with installed equipment,” Davis said.

“After operators extract rock, dirt and mud from the ground as part of the process of drilling oil wells, those materials are transported to a waste facility, sorted and ground into a slurry and then piped back into the ground to assist in pressuring the ground for future oil extraction,” Davis said.

Due to anticipated presence of toxic nitrous sulfide, which commonly accompanies drilling debris, nearly all aspects of Alcan’s electrical work fell under the “Hazardous (Classified) Locations” section of the National Electrical Code .

Weather and time affected the process of building the waste facility.

“The longer the reassembly process took, and the further into winter it extended, twilight periods were shorter, colder and the weather was more adverse,” Davis said. “That’s the work environment of North Slope Alaska, where the wind chill can hit –80°F below zero. We did connections during the final assembly process that began in October and worked right through Christmas into the new year.”

All things considered, due to the geography and weather in Alaska, both Fullford and Alcan faced challenges not encountered by contractors in most other states.

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