Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Energy infrastructure

Sure, talk about beefing up the grid and generating capacity. But don't forget that we need the manufacturing, management and personnel infrastructure to make the components we want. And these have been withering on the vine for years.

For instance, once a ~15,000HP synchronous motor failed on us at a nuke site where I worked. I can't remember how much it weighed, but it took a special hauler over special roads to get it off the site. Road and bridges that could handle it were few and far between, and its size required special permits. The result was that for about every mile between it and its destination, it had to travel about 5.

But where to take it? Without consistent sales of big generators, the factory space, engineers, shop personnel, fixtures, and other facilities get retired, reassigned or scrapped. In our case we needed to have the windings redone after which the transformer had be be immersed in a tank of some special compound with high resistivity and dielectric strength. As it turned out, only two facilities in North America could handle the job, and one was in Canada.

That's just about replacement parts. What about designing and installing new power plants, distribution lines and other facilities? You need to have a number of companies with the expertise to do this, and a reasonable guarantee of enough volume to justify them hiring, training and deploying their personnel and other resources. These are companies like Bechtel, Stone and Webster, Fluor, Westinghouse, Peter Kiewit, Siemens, GE, ABB, Hitachi,Flowserve, Sargent and Lundy, Black and Veatch, Burns and McDonnell and a few extraordinarily talented electric utilities like Exelon, Entergy and Duke Energy.

Well, so what if some graybeards retired - it's just management, right? After all, I hear that a good manager can manage *anything*. Not so. Compare the performance of William B. Derrickson in getting the St. Lucie nuclear power plant online in comparison to any other site under construction in the same time frame and see the difference. Yes, there is specific management expertise in getting nuclear and other big projects done, and if you think training employees is expensive, wait until you have to train management.

If you really want long lead time, try growing personnel. For the right price I'd go back into nuclear power, but a lot of talent has gone into other fields or retired. And that's not to mention all of the boilermakers, steamfitters, millwrights, electricians, instrument techs, ironworkers, carpenters, operating engineers, laborers and other craftsmen it takes. And that's just for power plants and new transmission lines - other needed energy related infrastructure improvements such as the building of new refineries and pipelines will place demands on the same talent pool.

But why should investors and managers invest the money needed to be able to take on projects like this? How will they know that they can get a return on their capital when regulations never stabilize and funding might disappear tomorrow because somebody thinks one of George Bush's associates is making too much money? We need true commitment from regulators and Congress if anything permanent is to happen.

So don't go thinking that we can just pass some laws and spend some money and everything else will fall into place. We've been dissipating our capital, labor and expertise for years through neglect and lack of investment, and it will take some time to recover.

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