How can an Owner’s Engineer smooth the progress of a renewable energy project?

Throughout the renewable energy sector, there are plenty of examples where decisions made during the planning and procurement phases have caused difficulty during construction and affected future operations. A smoother construction process is to everyone’s advantage – avoiding cost blow-outs and time over-runs, and a lot of unnecessary stress and sweat.

An experienced Owner’s Engineer can provide an extra level of continuity and foresight to help reduce risk and minimise surprises. Having independent eyes focused on ‘doing it right’ from the earliest stages is an investment in keeping a project on the path to success.

Here we discuss a few simple and practical opportunities where an Owner’s Engineer can make a meaningful difference to progress.

Providing critical continuity

Continuity during the development lifecycle of a renewable energy project can sometimes be difficult to maintain. Transitions occur when project ownership changes, people come and go, government policy shifts, and when the project transitions from one development phase to the next. An Owner’s Engineer who is part of the project through all the phases of development can add a valuable perspective and source of knowledge to the project team through these transitions.

The Owner’s Engineer can apply industry-wide learnings and experience to identify risks and detect opportunities to maximise value in both the immediate detail of the project as well as later stages of the development’s lifecycle. This increases the likelihood that the transition between lifecycle phases – such as when a project advances to construction, or the handover of a newly constructed asset to an operations team – will be smooth and successful.

Maintaining order and good process

In a project where schedule risk is a big concern to all involved, sometimes good process falls to the wayside. The appropriate order of studies, design validation and construction can be impeded by a desire to get construction underway as soon as possible. Good forethought, data, modelling, discussion and design validation take time, but they are essential inputs for a successful outcome. A rush to get construction underway before this process is concluded increases the chances of re-work being required – a risk that’s always best avoided.

Identifying knowledge gaps

Having an independent Owner’s Engineer involved in a project from the beginning of the development and design process means that there is an independent expert who can review early technical studies, and identify where there may be gaps in the analysis. These early technical studies ― such as geotechnical studies for foundation and road design, and soil thermal resistivity testing to inform the right choices for cable sizing and trenching ― can have major impacts on the cost and effort expended during the design process, and the type of design that is required for a successful project. If these studies aren’t completed early enough, or thoroughly enough, there will be higher risks for the EPC contractor bidding on a project, hence higher cost. There may also be delays in the design process and at critical construction stages, with costly ramifications.

Thinking through logistical constraints at planning application stage

Construction of a wind farm, solar farm or hybrid renewable project is always a logistical challenge. For example, wind turbine components are massive, and getting bigger all the time. Rural roads are rarely of the width, camber and capacity to handle the large vehicles needed to carry materials, components or machinery. They may also not cope well with the volume of truck movements required. Community preferences and planning constraints can also limit the number of truck movements to and from sites per day.

Another important consideration in the construction of large renewable energy projects is how to move cranes around the site. In the case of a wind farm, will it be more effective to choose a crane that can be disassembled after erecting each turbine, moved in sections, and reassembled at the next turbine site? Or will it be quicker and cheaper to drive a crane between turbines? Given the potential for the width of the crane to overflow the width of the local roads, such a decision needs to take into account the potential for additional environmental approvals for a wider area of disturbance.

These challenges need to be carefully considered as early as possible in the planning application stage. Time and effort spent on the planning application can make a big difference to the ultimate project outcome. As the project progresses, clear sequencing and communication is vital for keeping things moving smoothly while also adhering to the constraints of construction and transport conditions.

Writing and enforcing clear specifications

A project’s technical specifications and the contractor’s response to them ultimately determine the end quality of the project. For both the owner and the contractor, it is vital that specifications are unambiguous and reflect the owner’s technical requirements and desired quality for the project. The Owner’s Engineer can help improve specifications based on their experience, for example specifying what sort of fixings can be used to hang cables below the solar panels, thus impacting long-term lifetime and maintenance costs.

When it comes to following specifications during the design and construction process, strict is good from the owner’s perspective. If the Owner’s Engineer rigorously enforces the specifications from the start, it sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the construction process and is likely to result in better project outcomes and fewer issues arising down the track.

Identifying safety issues and opportunities for improvement

An Owner’s Engineer brings a breadth of experience to a project as well as a clear pair of eyes and the ability to see the details as well as the bigger picture. The Owner’s Engineer is therefore well placed to identify potential safety issues and suggest improvements throughout design and construction. The Owner’s Engineer is involved in all stages of design, so is able to suggest safety improvements during safety-in-design and hazardous operations workshops. This can improve the chances of having issues of construction sequencing, construction safety or operational safety issues raised early in the design stages.

Construction inspections are often undertaken by a regular team member as well as a range of specialists. The regular team member creates continuity and the ability to compare practices on site over time. The targeted inspections by specialists focus fresh eyes on any potential issues arising during key milestones of construction.

Bringing a unique perspective

In our experience, the Owner’s Engineer can play a very valuable role in any project: helping to minimise risks such as construction delays and difficulties and maximise opportunities to achieve ‘best for project’ outcomes. The Owner’s Engineer brings a unique perspective: the ability to see a project from all angles, to maintain an independent view, and to filter everything through the lens of experience.

At Entura, we’re privileged to work with specialists who have been involved in both the design and operation of many power and water assets across their careers. They have worked with assets over the full lifecycle, so their insights stem from deep real-world experience. This ‘owner-operator’ perspective is not common among consultants, and we’re proud to apply it to help our clients get the best from their projects.

If you would like to discuss how Entura can help you with your renewable energy project, please contact us.

About the authors

Kate Hammerton is a Renewable Energy Engineer with a passion for hybrid energy systems and isolated micro-grids. She is involved in managing multi-disciplinary teams as the Owner’s Engineer on utility-scale renewable energy construction projects across Australia and the Indo-Pacific region, including the Agnew Hybrid Renewable Project, the Rottnest Island Water and Renewable Energy Nexus Project (WREN), Antarctica New Zealand’s Scott Base redevelopment at Ross Island, Tasmania’s Cattle Hill and Granville Harbour wind farms, and implementation of 14 MW of battery systems in Tonga.

Andrew Wright is a Specialist Renewable Energy Engineer at Entura. He has more than 15 years of experience in the renewable energy sector spanning resource assessment, site identification, equipment selection (wind and solar), development of technical documentation and contractual agreements, operational assessments and owner’s/lender’s engineering services. He has an in-depth understanding of the energy industry in Australia, while his international consulting experience includes New Zealand, Antarctica, China, India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Micronesia.


September 20, 2022