Trying not to spill the beans

Ever wondered what it`s like to work on a project in a difficult and sometimes dangerous location? Marcia Ellen Julius offers a rare insight into how the La Sierra project management team succeeded in Colombia – a country better known for coffee beans than power plant construction.

It was a classic case of something good coming from something bad. In 1992, Colombia`s inadequate electrical generating capacity, outdated distribution network, and over-dependence on hydroelectricity – coupled with extended drought and ever-increasing demand – led to a crisis that is still remembered as “the blackout”.

In response to this, the government developed an aggressive and successful privatization scheme in the electrical energy sector, part of an economic liberalization programme termed aperatura, involving privatization of state-owned enterprises, loosening of import controls, free trade, and new investment both foreign and domestic. Colombia offered special incentives to build coal and gas fired plants which would take advantage of the country`s wealth of those natural energy resources, thus stimulating interest for both domestic investors and multi-national consortiums from Europe, Asia and the Americas. To date, a number of successful projects have been completed [PEI, April 1998].

But drought and an outdated electrical power distribution network haven`t been the only problems. For over 30 years the Colombian government has been fighting militant groups who control large portions of the countryside and are dedicated to violent, disruptive activities. Using both terrorist and guerrilla tactics, these groups resort to murder, kidnapping and industrial sabotage to gain political support and discredit the elected government. Combined with this threat is the presence of powerful organised crime linked to the manufacture and exportation of illegal drugs, and the government`s efforts to deal with the double problem are hampered by scarce law enforcement resources.

The region named Magdalena Medio, which is located along the central section of Colombia`s 1705 km-long Magdalena River, is a stronghold for a number of conflicting groups including both the leftist guerrillas and opposing paramilitary cadres, all of which act ruthlessly in their attempts to gain power. The local population are often the victims, and paramilitary threats against targeted villages have recently caused massive displacements in the area. It`s a nightmarish scenario, where the remoteness of the region combined with its severe political instability would seem to make power plant construction a near impossibility. But against these odds the highly successful La Sierra power plant was completed in March 1998 – ahead of schedule and on budget – by the combined efforts of General Electric and Felguera Montajes y Mantenimiento (FMM), a subsidiary of the Spanish engineering group Duro Felguera.

The story began in December 1996, when the Empresas Publicas de Medellin, the municipal utilities company of the city of Medellin and other towns in the state of Antioquia, awarded a contract for a simple cycle gas-fired power plant, with fuel oil back-up, to the La Sierra consortium, to be built near Puerto Nare, Antioquia, on the shores of the Magdalena River. The value of the total project was over $170 million, and it centred around two General Electric class F (2 x 7001 FA) PG 7231 gas turbines with a total power supply of 320 MW, chosen by the customer for their efficiency levels, good operating flexibility, and high plant reliability. The project was directed by General Electric`s Vilhelm Lund and FMM`s Francisco Martin.

Because of the desperate power shortage, the time schedule was unbelievably tight. “The station was designed to be built in 18 months,” said Lund, “but we undertook to build it in less than one year to help them cope with the drought. The challenge was fourfold: to develop a site in a remote area, to build the plant under the pressure of a very aggressive schedule, to beat our competitors, and to satisfy our customer. Selecting the right consortium partner for the project would be an integral ingredient to our success.”

GE chose FMM because of their experience with power plants and their proven ability to successfully perform in Colombia. It was the right choice. Ten months after breaking ground, the substation was commissioned, one month later the first unit was in operation, and two months after that the second unit became operational. Both generators were dispatched at full load from the first day of service, and the technology performance has exceeded expectations.

The remote location of the site brought its own difficulties. To get to the Magdalena Medio region, international personnel had to fly into Bogota and Medellin, then either travel by road in the tropical heat (over 40 degreesC in the shade at midday with dehydration a constant threat) or fly by Cessna to Puerto Nare or Puerto Berrio, two small airfields near the site, and take a boat up river from there.

Heavy equipment arrived in the port city of Barranquilla by ship or air from the USA and Spain and then was transported upstream by an experienced river transport subcontractor who had to deal with drought-induced fluctuations in the river`s level. Once at the site, the equipment was off-loaded onto a specially constructed three-level dock, designed to overcome those water level variations. Finally, heavy lifts and hydraulic jacks were used to unload the equipment from the dock to the road.

These well-managed, coordinated efforts on the part of Felguera Montajes y Mantenimiento went a long way towards assuring the success of the project. During the six-month engineering phase, managers in FMM`s main offices in Spain and their branch office in Bogota co-ordinated with the Site Manager Francisco Alaez, who was already supervising over 120 people as they prepared drawings, transported equipment, or sorted out transportation logistics. During the following year-long construction phase, there were as many as 874 people employed on site, in job classifications ranging from caterers, cleaning personnel and security guards to engineers, draftsmen and pipe fitters.

But the most impressive part of the project was the comprehensive way in which local communities – in spite of a dangerous and potentially explosive political environment – were brought into a good relationship with the consortium.

The local population was heavily involved during the civil works. Francisco Alaez, in addition to his normal responsibilities, handled a well-thought-out programme of local community liaison. “In a country where loyalties and favouritism often influence many aspects of life,” he explained, “our policy was to treat all members of the local population the same, which meant that there were no grudges held and any member of the surrounding communities who wanted to work could do so. Cooperation was paramount.”

And the cooperation worked on every level. Individuals routinely met with social workers who helped sort out any problems. Teams of workers, no more than 15 at a time, were instructed on health and safety on site. A bi-monthly newsletter was published for the whole workforce containing articles and amusements written by the workers themselves plus news on the construction progress. To engender high morale and a sense of belonging, the newsletter focused on tasks carried out effectively, mentioned who had been taken on, where they were from and what their responsibilities would be, and dealt with comments and suggestions for improvements.

Then there were the local community programmes instituted by FMM to get the surrounding population favourably interested in the project. The consortium constructed roads and a sports field for the local community and organised sports competitions. It also gave technical support for road repairs, made donations to schools and the health centre, and donated medicines and medical apparatus. Objects of archaeological interest found during the excavations were sent to the University of Antioquia for their collection.

In a wider field, cooperation with the community; local government representatives; the military and the police meant that Alaez was kept informed of paramilitary action in the region and what risks were involved. In addition to the usual on-site security, La Sierra employed armed guards, and no one was allowed to leave the camp site without one. “The camp was fenced in and guarded from the outside,” explained GE`s Vilhelm Lund. “Day and night curfew was imposed on all camp residents, and this created a difficult psychological situation for men who simply wanted to go out for a beer or find a date. One could say that they were free people under voluntary site arrest.”

But in spite of the pressure, everyone pulled together to get the job done. “All participants were motivated to focus on results, to do the work right the first time,” said Lund. “The atmosphere at site resembled that of an Olympic competition for construction where each participant tried to excel and finish first. The aggregate result was the schedule success.” And how does the Empresas Publicas de Medellin feel about the project? “The customer was very satisfied with GE and FMM,” said FMM Project Director Francisco Martin, “not only with the quality of the works but also with the compliance to schedule, at a period when Colombia`s requirements for electrical energy were maximum.”

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