Battling the elements
2007 PMI PROJECT OF THE YEAR FINALIST
from left, Wayne Abernethy, Suncor Energy Ltd.; Ahmed Elshafey and Shawn Scott, Jacobs Canada; Terry Jones, Suncor
BY CAROL HILDEBRAND * PHOTOS BY ANDREW QUERNER
A TEAM TAKES ON NASTY WEATHER AND A MASSIVE TALENT SHORTAGE BY MOVING SOME WORK OFF SITE—AND STOCKING THE ON-SITE CAMP WITH ALL THE AMENITIES.
Mother Nature just seems to have it out for some projects.
Oil companies must, of course, go where the oil is—even if it's in a remote area known as Firebag, about 440 kilometers (273 miles) north of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. For construction company Jacobs Canada Inc., that meant battling frigid temperatures and dark days as it built an oil cogeneration facility for Suncor Energy Ltd.
But innovative project design and a team-wide commitment to collaboration helped the two Calgary, Alberta-based companies weather any storm that came their way—and finish the facility on an accelerated schedule.
“The fact that we were able to complete this project three months early for less than originally budgeted can be attributed to a strong project management team on both sides that properly planned work and did the thinking on things like labor attraction, material planning and [offsite construction],” says Terry Jones, project director, cogeneration and expansion project, Suncor.
That kind of innovative thinking also made it an award-winning project. In 2007, the Firebag cogeneration plant was named a PMI Project of the Year Finalist.
The number of megawatts of power the new Firebag facility produces per day
MINIMIZE THE FOOTPRINT
The cogeneration project is one piece in a suite of projects at Firebag designed to maximize Suncor's ability to access heavy oil deposits below the earth's surface. Heavy oil must be heated into a liquid before it can be pumped, requiring a process known as steam-assisted gravity drainage. “You pump steam into the ground, and steam and oil comes out,” Mr. Jones explains. “You then separate the oil and water and recycle the water to make steam again.”
But getting the cogeneration facility ready for production posed several logistical issues. For example, Suncor sought to keep the plant as close as possible to the existing steam generation plant to minimize the interconnecting pipe racks and power-line construction necessary to connect the two. The best spot was a compact plot in the northwest corner of the site. “It was an ideal location, but the small footprint meant that we needed to get creative in putting together the layout and installation philosophies of the equipment,” says Shawn Scott of Jacobs Canada, deputy project manager for the plant's construction.
Cogeneration: a process in which an industrial facility uses its waste energy to produce heat or electricity
To save room, the engineering team devised a system that allowed the controls and piping for a heat-recovery steam generator to be shifted from a ground-mounted module to a vertical stacked arrangement that's integrated and supported off the side of the generator. The move substantially reduced the building's footprint and life cycle operational costs. “We worked with operations to minimize spacing requirements for equipment and maximize the space available,” Mr. Scott says.
Unless you're an oil company, the location for the new Firebag site isn't what most people would consider prime real estate. There were days when the sun barely got above the horizon, and the daytime temperature only reached a high of about -4 or -5 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 or -21 degrees Celsius), according to Mr. Scott. Team members generally worked shifts of 10 days on, four days off, and with overtime could spend even more time at camp.
Because the site was isolated, recruiting—and retaining—a workforce was difficult. As just one of a number of energy companies in the area, Suncor had to compete for the same limited pool of skilled labor and management.
Cogeneration provides Suncor Energy Ltd. with a steady source of local power—a big concern given the company's future expansion of plant sites. “We couldn't buy cheaper power, and with limited transmission lines in the area we were worried that there wouldn't be enough available power,” says Terry Jones, Suncor. With the area undergoing a major expansion, “our concern was that if we didn't make our own power, we might not be able to buy it.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF SUNCOR ENERGY INC.
25,000 THE NUMBER OF BARRELS OF OIL PRODUCED PER DAY BY THE NEW FIREBAG FACILITY
And project leaders needed to fill spots with more than just warm bodies. They had to find people with the right experience and expertise. So the team turned to long-term contracts with preferred vendors such as Jacobs and contractor Flint Construction to ensure the appropriate talent was on deck through all phases of the project.
“There are too few people with the correct skills—too few people, period, really—so we tried to make ourselves the camp of choice,” Mr. Jones says. “We built a hockey rink, baseball diamonds and a cross-country ski trail. Workers could be up there for 20 days at a time, so it's important to have things like cable TV and the internet.”
Suncor also piloted the use of Filipino oil workers who generally worked in the Middle East, a program Mr. Jones says has worked out very well.
Given the talent shortage, the project team had as much work as possible done off site. Modules of the steam generators were prefabricated and then shipped on site as complete packages, saving both time and labor costs.
“We have a constraint on the amount of good quality labor we can attract, so any work we can move off site allows us to do the projects more quickly,” Mr. Scott says. “We had 70,000 hours of work done off site. The differential these days is that it costs C$60 more per hour to have the work done on site.”
STICK TO THE SCHEDULE
The team also relied on strict procurement and materials planning to keep the project on course.
“The rule was that all materials and engineering drawings had to be on site a month before we started, which allowed us to properly plan work,” Mr. Jones says.
Making that stipulation helped keep the work schedule on track and ensured the workforce didn't sit idle for want of materials.
The team had another powerful advantage: Its leadership knew how to work together. “We've been around the block many times and do know each other from past lives, so there was trust and respect and good communication,” says Ken Harris, project manager, cogeneration project, Jacobs Canada. “From my point of view, if you have this good attitude, you'll wind up with people who want to help you beat the challenges.” PM
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