By Kerry McGinley
Houston had a problem. PAE had a solution.
“We can’t let the power ever go off,” said Stephen Brettel, program director for the NASA JSC FSS contract. “We have successfully maintained all of the utilities for that building for almost 19 years. Every second there’s someone up in the International Space Center, we have to keep (Mission Control) running.”
Located in Houston, which is subject to hurricanes, Mission Control requires uninterrupted electrical service to operate the facility control systems. If the power feed from the utility company goes down, then the load is switched from the utility company to the building’s emergency generators.
“However, there’s a time lag between when the power drops from the utility and generator engines crank up,” Brettel said. “You don’t get to crank the car and drive it instantly. To offset this lag period, we use an (uninterrupted power supply, or UPS) system to supply power until the engines can drive the electrical generators.”
PAE applied its Continuous Improvement principles to tackle the challenge of updating the current system, parts of which date back to the 1960s. NASA had originally planned to install an inertial flywheel UPS to provide the backup power. It’s a large, heavy metal disc that spins rapidly using its momentum to power the generators. But there’s a chance of mechanical failure as well as a break in power as the wheel starts to spin.
Sonny Parkman, building project manager on the contract, is a Lean Six Sigma master blackbelt. He was part of a team that pitched a new idea to NASA: rather than a giant flywheel, use lithium-ion batteries.
“Our focus on continuous improvement provides the customer with confidence that we are constantly looking for ways to provide more value while minimizing costs,” Parkman said.
The new system will run 2.5 megawatts of continuous power in the event of an interruption at the power plant level. It’s a $17 million projected slated for completion in the spring of 2020.
“Here’s the trickiest part: We have to shut all the power off to Mission Control to test it,” Brettel said. “The generators will click on, the load will transfer from the UPS to the generator. If you’re sitting in the building somewhere, you’ll never know the difference between the power being shut off and the (new system) taking the load.”
PAE CEO John Heller recently toured the Mission Control and got a first-hand view of the progress.
“I am so impressed with the PAE JSC team’s commitment to constantly challenging each other to find new and innovative ways to improve systems performance across the program,” Heller said.