The 10 key challenges when managing decommissioning projects in the energy sector

The decommissioning of an energy generation site is admittedly complex, time consuming and inherently hazardous. But as power stations worldwide reach their end of life – and economic and environmental pressures force others to close – such decommissioning projects are not only inevitable, but essential.

Richard Vann, managing director of RVA Group – and past president of both the Institute of Demolition Engineers and Institute of Explosives Engineers – recently explored the biggest challenges within this specialist arena with Energy Engineering. Read his thoughts from the article below…

1. Decommissioning is not simply the reverse of construction

The first obstacle should actually be one of the easiest to address and it comes down to mindset. The safe, cost-effective and environmentally efficient decommissioning of an energy asset is not simply the reverse of its construction. Demolition is an engineering-driven discipline and, whilst some will view it as a ‘unwelcome evil’, it is a part of the asset lifecycle and requires a very specific skill-set.

Many energy operators fail to dedicate the level of time, skills and resources truly required, but cutting corners will probably put lives, the environment and the commercial integrity of the project, at risk.

2. Bringing assets to a ‘known state’

Rarely are two structures the same in any industrial sector, and energy generation is no exception. Power stations throughout the country have been built at varying times, with different configurations and using multiple construction techniques. Some boilers are suspended, for instance, whilst others have been erected from the ground up. This site diversity is challenging in itself, but in the absence of detailed plans, the nature of that challenge escalates significantly.

It’s in the DNA of a demolition professional to problem solve but gathering information about the presence, location and type of hazardous insulation materials (HIM); attracting secure bids from the tendering demolition companies; and bringing assets to a ‘known state’ is far from straightforward, especially if drawings are non-existent, some structures have only been partially cleaned and the knowledge of site personnel has been lost.

Aside from appointing a competent team, the key advice here is to allow sufficient time and other resources at the outset of a project, to assess the level of residual product, any loss of containment and the structural integrity of the assets that remain.

3. Awareness of all options

Energy firms are experts at running power stations, but they’re not decommissioning specialists, and nor should they be expected to be. They cannot therefore know all possible routes that the project could go down.

The preparation of a costed feasibility and options study addresses this knowledge barrier and empowers operators to make informed decisions. Often commencing with a series of management workshops, it is an exploratory process which helps to uncover the key issues associated with a plant, project and site, before providing a clear view as to the true opportunity or liability of the works. The resulting report then usually highlights a number of technical, costed conclusions and recommendations as to the most appropriate route map for the assignment.

Elements of some smaller stations may be carefully dismantled for sale and re-erection elsewhere, particularly with rotating equipment for instance. Whilst there are cases where enhanced monetisation of an asset has been achieved, as the numbers of closed stations increases, it is rare in the energy sector to complete such deals. The sale for reuse avenue should always be a ‘plan B’, and rarely can be relied upon as the ultimate end of life route.

4. The presence of on-site services

Mothballed or partially closed sites will inevitably have power distribution grid infrastructures on site, which must often remain in-situ and undisturbed. Their location is likely to determine what else has to stay, which decommissioning methodologies can be used and the sequential roll out of works throughout the project.

The rerouting of utilities is sometimes essential, which is an achievable yet complex and arduous task. The time required to successfully execute this diversion exercise should not be underestimated.

5. Respect the role of technology

Demolition equipment has continued to advance over the years which means long reach excavators can reach newfound heights and drones can often provide a helpful inspection aide before people have to enter any vessels or work at height themselves.

The challenge surrounds knowing what to use and when, as limitations may be placed on whether a drone can fly in proximity to high voltage power lines or other sensitive equipment, for instance.

6. Demand is outstripping supply

For one of the first times in the history of the decommissioning profession, there is the risk of demand outstripping supply – an issue now being felt on a global scale. The number of projects coming to the fore is unmistakeable, due to mounting commercial pressures, ageing assets, geographical market shifts, stricter environmental and legislative compliance requirements, technical innovation and many other less tangible influences. Admittedly this is not just a trend being witnessed in the energy sector, but the matter of who is available to undertake the work is unquestionably one of the largest challenges currently faced by power station owners.

Great care and attention should therefore be taken to assemble a competent supply chain of decommissioning consultant, contractor, and specialists, where relevant.

7. Cost

The number of site owners that now favour a cost- rather than quality-led approach to decommissioning, is thankfully dwindling. The supply chain selection criteria is far more multifaceted than simply the bottom line impact of the chosen project team and methodological route map.

But still some clients – perhaps understandably – try to squeeze the financial parameters of the assignment. If these fiscal pressures risk compromising EHS standards, the outcome can be catastrophic.

8. H and S

Health and safety challenges are certainly not new, but they remain a constant priority when executing decommissioning projects large and small, particularly as assignments grow in complexity. Power station and even nuclear decommissioning projects are coming to the fore at a rate never before seen in the industry, so, quite simply, a robust EHS mindset needs to take precedence, irrespective of the wider pressures highlighted within this feature.

9. Environmental pressures

The adoption of proactive measures to protect the environment is becoming a global priority. When it comes to decommissioning works, there should therefore be no impact on the surrounding community and the project should now achieve a >97% recycling rate as standard.

10. CSR reputation

When a power station closes, the industry, media and general public will watch what happens next with a great degree of interest – if not scrutiny. So, linked to the previous point, energy firms must respect their duty of care to the surrounding neighbourhood, employees past and present, and the wider community. The ‘cost’ of liability – whether that is trespassing on a poorly maintained redundant site, a loss of containment, or worse – is immeasurable.

Not only is it ethically crucial that energy firms demonstrate a strong CSR stance – failure to uphold such an approach would have a vast impact on brand reputation too.

If you’re interested in speaking to someone at RVA Group about the contents of this article, or you’d like some decommissioning advice for your own project, get in touch via our website or call 020 8387 1323.