Viewpoints from the Board Room: Mario Finis, Stantec

In this hydro interview, Mario Finis, waterpower and dams global business line leader for Stantec, discusses growth potential and challenges worldwide for hydropower and dams.

Stantec works in dams and hydropower globally. The company bought consulting firm MWH in early 2016 to expand outside of its primary footprint in Canada and the U.S. Mario Finis was named waterpower and dams global business line leader for Stantec in January 2017. He has worked for MWH, now part of Stantec, since joining Harza in 1994.

Hydro Review spoke with Finis recently to learn more about the potential and challenges worldwide for hydropower and dams and the concept of technology innovation in a mature industry.

Q: Please give our readers a bit of background on Stantec holistically.

Finis: Stantec is a global architectural and engineering services firm. We have five main business lines: Environmental Services; Infrastructure, which includes airports and roadways; Water is a big part of Stantec, especially with the MWH acquisition; Buildings (we’re building a new headquarters in Edmonton [Alberta, Canada] and Stantec participated in the design); and the group I’m part of, Energy and Resources, which includes hydropower, dams, mining, oil and gas, and power.

We’re about 22,000 people now. The bulk of those are in North America from the Stantec side, but MWH does bring to the Stantec organization the global footprint.

Q: How do waterpower and dams fit into Stantec’s overall business focus?

Finis: Waterpower and dams is a great fit in what Stantec prides itself on, which is being a member of the communities where we live and work. Bringing clean water, clean power and renewable energy to the communities we work in really talks to how we want to be serving our local communities and be part of developing a better quality of life for a lot of the areas we work in. For example in dams and hydropower, we focus on not only new generation but on making sure that dams are safe for the public where there’s a potential impact. A lot of our projects are multipurpose projects, so not only do they provide power but they provide irrigation water, water supply and recreational benefits. We’re pleased to see that hydropower and dams can fill many of the needs that Stantec prides itself on in terms of serving communities.

Q: Stantec acquired MWH in 2016. What was the strategic thinking behind that decision?

Finis: There are some great stories behind the acquisition. What Stantec was looking for at the time was two main things. They were concentrated in Canada and the U.S., so they were looking to expand into a more international footprint. And they were looking to get into the construction business a bit, not in a huge way but at least looking to serve clients who needed an EPC-type solution to their projects and bringing that construction aspect of business. With MWH they got both of those things in one package. The MWH history has been a long one in terms of the international markets, especially in dams and hydropower, and then we did have MWH Constructors, along with a firm in the UK that does construction called Biwater Services, now called MWH Treatment.

With the MWH acquisition, Stantec was able to fulfill a lot of its desires and needs in one fell swoop. From the MWH side, we also saw it as a good fit from two aspects:

We were looking to have access to more resources to expand our business. We were very concentrated in the water sector, so a bit of diversification we felt was a good thing overall for the owners and stakeholders in MWH.

And now that we’ve gone from a private company to a public company, it gives us more access to capital to be able to grow much more quickly than we would have been able to as a private entity.

So I think both sides saw a very good fit in the acquisition.

Q: As director of Stantec’s waterpower and dams group, what is your future vision for this sector within your company?

Finis: We were pleased with our ranking as No. 1 in hydropower in Engineering News-Record last year and certainly hope to continue and maintain that position going forward but are looking to do even more both in the North American and international markets.

Stantec brings us a geographical footprint in Canada that we did not have previously. That local presence in a lot of those communities opens up doors to us to provide hydropower and dams services that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. And on the other side, we’re now able to bring a lot of the other services that Stantec offers to our international clients. In places like Africa for example, we’re now able to bring transportation services, building services, more environmental services, and high-voltage transmission services, where we as MWH alone were not able to bring that full spectrum of services.

Q: Where do you see hydropower headed in the U.S., and what are the opportunities and challenges?

Finis: Certainly we’re interested in seeing the NHA [National Hydropower Association] goal of 50 [GW of new hydro] by 2050. We do think that some elements of that are perhaps a little easier to achieve than others. The aging infrastructure of course is a big issue right now, and being able to come in and provide upgrades and modernization of existing facilities is something that can be relatively low-hanging fruit in terms of the fact that the facilities are already there, so there are virtually no additional environmental impacts.

The same applies to adding power to non-powered dams. We want to make the best use of existing infrastructure assets, so projects that can take advantage of that resource with minimal environmental impacts are certainly areas we see as being ripe for expansion in the U.S.

With regard to challenges, certainly we’ve seen the regulatory challenges in terms of the FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] licensing. Our partners at NHA are working hard to try to improve and at least get the hydropower industry on a reasonable basis in terms of environmental studies and the like and to streamline the time it takes to get a project licensed. And then again we also see now with events like the Oroville Dam situation in California, U.S., an increased focus on dam safety, so we do want to continue our practices related to looking at and improving the safety of dams across the U.S.

The 969-MW Neelum Jhelum hydro project in Pakistan is a large infrastructure project where Stantec has been involved.

Q: Stantec works globally. Can you give me some highlights of areas you see with a lot of hydro potential?

Finis: One of the areas now where we see a lot of need is in developing countries. We work in these areas, both in Africa and in southeast Asia. These are countries where we’ve been for many decades: Ethiopia, Pakistan and Nepal for example. There’s still a great need for clean water and clean energy in those places and projects that are done in a sustainable manner.

We do plan to continue our work in those areas and actually expand in those geographies. We have an office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which was our first office in Africa, so we’re expanding in eastern Africa and looking to expand in southern Africa as well. In addition, we’ve got our long-standing offices as part of the MWH entity in Australia and New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Europe and Latin America. We see a lot of potential to tap into that global network to bring the resources we have, wherever they may be on the globe, to projects in the developing countries.

The 88-MW Cannelton hydro project on the Ohio River in the U.S. is one example of hydro generation being added to existing infrastructure.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges to hydro development globally?

Finis: Some of the issues we’ve seen are related to making sure there’s funding available for projects, particularly at the early stages. There is money out there, but part of the challenge is the capital-intensive nature of hydropower projects and the long lead time. Projects typically take quite some time to get the environmental studies and permitting done and also to get the construction completed, so people need to have a long-term planning horizon when it comes to hydropower.
It’s a great way to make electricity but it does take some time to get on line.

Once it does come on line it is fantastic. It’s a low-cost, clean resource. But having the wherewithal and patience it takes to get the projects permitted and built is a bit of a challenge.

Q: What needs to happen, both in the U.S. and globally, to help hydropower reach its potential?

Finis: Parity needs to happen in terms of the U.S. with regard to other generation sources. We are not looking for advantages but need to get to an equal playing field with wind and solar and some of the other technologies when it comes to investment tax credits, production tax credits and tax incentives. Also, policy on the regulatory side, again trying to streamline the FERC permitting process and be able to work through those environmental and permitting issues. Not that we want to shortcut anything, but we think we could still do projects responsibly but do them much more efficiently and quickly.

The other thing we want to make sure of is that projects are done in an environmentally responsible manner. We do see places around the world where there is some opposition to hydro projects, but we’ve also seen some great success stories like our client in Ethiopia, Ethiopia Electric Power. They’ve found ways to get projects built by bringing global resources to bear. It may include Chinese and Italian contractors, and it includes ourselves from an engineering perspective, and this helps make sure hydro projects are completed in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about technology and innovation in what’s seen as a mature or staid industry. Is technology development happening, and is it important?

Finis: I would say it is happening and it is important to the industry. For example, there are several sessions at HydroVision International on marine and hydrokinetic energy, which I think is an exciting development in waterpower in recent years, so we do see that becoming more and more feasible as the technology advances and people are investing more. Definitely we’re seeing advances in that part of the business.

I think also on the equipment side we are seeing improvements in efficiency of turbine-generators and reliability of equipment. As we have talked about with the aging infrastructure and many of our plants being 50 to 80 years old or more, as we look at modernization and upgrades, using the new technology for the generating equipment and control systems I think is very beneficial in making more use of the existing resource without any additional environmental impact, be it fish-friendly turbines or efficiency improvements. Those things are absolutely important to making hydropower be available for another 50 to 80 years.

Q: What are the primary focuses for Stantec with regard to hydropower?

Finis: Our focus at Stantec is going to be a bit different depending on the market we’re in and the geography we’re looking at. Certainly in the more developed countries our focus is going to be on aging infrastructure and modernization and upgrade of facilities from an efficiency and optimization point of view and also from a dam safety point of view. We’ve seen the incident at Oroville Dam hopefully bring to light some of the needs when it comes to dam safety, and certainly we’re very interested in helping our clients improve the safety of their dams where necessary to make sure that they’re serving their communities in a safe and responsible manner.

The other thing we want to do from the Stantec side is continue our work on large international projects. It’s one of the reasons I think that Stantec and MWH came together. We’ve worked on projects in Ethiopia, large projects like 254-MW Genale Dawa III; projects in Pakistan like Neelum Jhelum, a 969-MW project there; and we’ve just recently finished the Panama Canal expansion, not strictly hydro but it does use a lot of the same skill sets and technical resources. So we definitely want to continue to bring those large marquee projects to the company and be successful in delivering those.

The other side is that with the Stantec footprint, we are in a lot of places that we haven’t been before, so we want to make sure we serve our local communities as best we can. Even in places like Denver, we’re working closely with Denver Water on looking at how they can improve their system both from a water supply and hydropower generation standpoint. We’re seeing more and more of that around communities in the U.S. where there’s a need for improved safety and improved water supply, and hydro can certainly be part of that when it makes sense to help offset some of those costs.

Audio: 36.4-MW Red Rock powerhouse

If you are reading the digital version of the magazine, listen to this audio file for an update on status of the 36.4-MW Red Rock powerhouse being built on the Des Moines River in the U.S.

Elizabeth Ingram is managing editor of Hydro Review.

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