How Hydropower has Evolved over 66 Years

The author discusses the remarkable changes he has witnessed in the engineering profession over his 66-year career in hydropower and how fortunate he was to work on hydro plants during the industry’s “golden years.”

By Jim Gordon

It is now 66 years since I first graduated from Aberdeen University in Scotland in 1951 and began working in hydropower. During that period, I have witnessed remarkable changes in the engineering profession. Engineering tools, which had remained essentially static for centuries, suddenly started to evolve after about 1970 with the introduction of computers and thousands of time-saving programs that permitted the construction of very complex structures, such as the Bird’s Nest stadium built for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

Similarly in the hydro energy industry, there are programs for determining waterhammer and surges in conduits, slope stability of dams, foundation seepage, and dam breach flood wave propagation, to name only a few. Now engineers can complete a complex analysis in a few hours instead of weeks or months.

Contracting methods change

The hydro consulting industry has changed completely. A half a century ago, there were many large independent consulting companies, all working on a fee for services that was based on an hourly charge for the work. The award of consulting contracts was based mainly on experience and knowledge, with only a secondary glance at the estimated engineering cost. In fact, contracts for all World Bank-financed developments were awarded on a two-envelope system, whereby the “A” envelopes containing project methodology and experience were opened first and the best consultant selected. After this only the one “B” envelope for the selected consultant containing the cost was opened, and the contract was awarded. The remaining “B” envelopes were returned to the consultants unopened.

Now, most large independent hydro consulting companies have been purchased by international contractors so that they can participate in the new contracting method for hydro plants. This requires the preliminary design of the facility and the submission of a single price for the entire work. With between three and five contractors bidding for the work, this means that 67% to 80% of the bidding cost is wasted. Also, the bid cost is very high because the entire project has to be designed and firm prices obtained for all the equipment. I do not entirely agree with this form of contract. In my opinion, it leads to contractors cutting corners in both the design and construction.

For the engineering staff, the changes have been difficult. Previously, an engineer worked with experienced engineers directing the work, looked at alternatives, and designed the structure with little regard to the engineering time spent because the hourly cost was always billable, within limits. Now, many engineers are given a fixed time for the design, and there is no further remuneration if more time is required. Senior experienced engineers have only limited time for advising junior engineers because they also are working within a defined time budget. This is due to the new type of contract with one fixed price for the entire project. Engineering costs (and all other costs) just have to be kept within budget or the contractor will incur a loss.

Staff motivation and loyalty has also changed, with instant dismissal when the project is completed and there are no prospects for a new assignment. Previously, there were sufficient retained earnings within the company to carry over staff for a few months until the next project appeared, as was done by Montreal Engineering (my initial employer) when the Spray and Rundle hydro expansion projects in Canada were postponed in 1961.

Educating and being educated

There have also been peripheral changes. Up until about 1980, engineers had time to prepare and publish papers on their projects. There were many journals available for these papers, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers Energy Journal and the Canadian Electrical Association Transactions, both of which have ceased publication.

Between 1980 and 2000, there was a significant decrease in the number of hydro papers published because engineers no longer had sufficient time for preparation, and attendance at hydro conventions and conferences was limited due to lower budgets imposed by the recession and accounting managers. Their impression was that such work does not contribute to the bottom line, which is an erroneous opinion with no regard for the enormous benefits of networking.

Now, the development of hydro papers is even discouraged by many utilities and drawings of structures may be prohibited due to fear of providing information for sabotage or terrorist attacks. Permission for site visits by hydro convention delegates is difficult to obtain, with restrictions on photos and tours through the powerhouse, for the same reasons. Hence, it is no wonder that young engineers are not attracted to careers in the hydro industry.

Looking back, I can see I was often in the right place at the right time and that unrelated actions by others influenced the direction of my career. A London engineering student does not report for work, and I take his place on the Glen Garry surveys, to start a long career in hydro. Dr. Mosaddeq nationalizes an oil company and I return to university in 1951 for a year of post-graduate work and meet John Nuttall, who suggests I go to Canada, and I find Montreal Engineering through his friend Dave Duguid. In the early years, I had an excellent mentor in the form of Geoffrey Gaherty, president of both Montreal Engineering and Calgary Power.

From this, it is easy to conclude that I was indeed fortunate to work on hydro plants during their golden years, when they were perceived as being entirely beneficial, with all nations wanting and encouraging their development. Yes, there were a few unexpected disasters, such as the degradation of the Nile delta and Wood Buffalo National Park, but the industry has learned from such mistakes.

Now, the hydro industry is over-regulated, with the cost of permits and environmental assessments being much larger than the cost of site investigations and engineering. This has resulted in few new developments on the North American continent, except in remote areas of Labrador, Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia in Canada, where there are still many undeveloped and attractive hydro sites, with minimal environmental concerns.

So, it is time to take down the shingle and retire. Let someone else solve hydro problems, and I wish them luck. It has been a blast!

Since earning his civil engineering degree, Jim Gordon has worked in 15 countries, commencing with Montreal Engineering and retiring as vice president hydro in 1990. Since then he has worked as a private consultant. During more than 60 years, he has visited 202 hydro developments and worked on 117. He has authored or co-authored 94 papers, along with writing 53 Lessons Learned articles published in HRW-Hydro Review Worldwide.

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