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Interview: George Whittaker, General Manager - Energy Transition, Bechtel  

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Could you give us a brief overview of your background in the energy projects industry and your current role at Bechtel?

I'm the General Manager for Energy Transition at Bechtel – I'm responsible for delivering the company's growing portfolio of front-end engineering design work in energy transition. That has involved particularly spearheading our role in carbon capture, sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen, methanol, and blue and green ammonia.

I joined Bechtel in 2004 as part of our graduate hire scheme in the UK as a process engineer. My 20-year-long career has included a range of roles from engineering, commissioning, project management, and business development – and focused on the oil, gas, and chemical sectors, but I also spent some time working in renewable energy. Although I'm based in London, I've worked around the world on various assignments in some interesting places along the way, such as Italy, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and the UAE. Prior to my current role, I led the business development team for energy transition before taking on the overall leadership. Energy transition is a long-term passion of mine, and I’m excited to be part of building this new business, which is the future of the company.

Can you explain the role you see Bechtel playing in the energy transition?

As a company, we have been increasingly focusing on the energy transition so that we can contribute to building a low-carbon world and helping achieve net-zero carbon emissions. Our customers' projects have the power to transform the energy industry, and we are committed to ensuring a reliable and secure energy supply while helping our customers reduce their carbon and methane emissions. Today, Bechtel is playing a critical role in bridging the energy gap between traditional fuels and cleaner fuels by focusing on expanding global LNG production, building renewables at scale, and delivering nuclear power projects. At the same time, we're involved in the production of copper, lithium, and other critical minerals that go into some of the key new clean energy technologies. We're also facilitating the creation of EV charging infrastructure and battery manufacturing projects that are part of the overall energy transition ecosystem. We are helping customers look at new solutions such as carbon capture, blue and green hydrogen and ammonia, sustainable aviation fuel, and small modular reactors. We support our customers across the full project lifecycle: from concept and feasibility to engineering, procurement, and construction through to commissioning and operations. We've been delivering concepts, pre-FEED, and FEED studies across a wide range of energy transition projects, and we bring a focus in that pre-construction phase on understanding technologies, understanding the supply chain, and helping customers determine the overall feasibility of a project, thereby positioning them to eventually move to the construction phase.

What experience and lessons learned can be applied from previous energy megaprojects to the zero- and low-emissions hydrogen and derivative projects space? And what do you see as the key pillars to successful project execution?

Bechtel has a long history in engineering and constructing megaprojects, from the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, to building the world's largest refinery in Jamnagar in India in the 2000s and, more recently, the Pennsylvania Chemicals project  in the U.S. Our approach to the new project types is the same as the old. We focus on fundamentals, which is a robust understanding of the technologies, how they work, the associated risks and the management of those risks. Secondly, a detailed assessment of the engineering design is crucial for any project as it allows us to fully quantify what is required so we can plan and deliver accordingly. Lastly, it is key to involve an EPC early as a constructor in the project planning. Having that construction insight early on provides a solid baseline that allows us to deliver successful projects. Those are the three fundamentals, and I think they apply to the new technologies and new types of projects as much as they have applied to the ones we've delivered historically.

How does Bechtel see the current craft labor shortage in the Gulf Coast and are there any key initiatives you're employing to help address it?

The need for hundreds of thousands of skilled craft professionals is one of the greatest challenges the industry has had in decades. Along the U.S. Gulf Coast alone, Bechtel needs to fill around 20,000 skilled craft positions and 2,000-3,000 professional staff positions in the next couple of years in order to deliver the next phase of energy projects. We're making use of all the options available to us to fill these positions, looking at ways to grow the talent pool, bringing diversity into the industry, and creating a workforce for the future. Collaboration is critical to achieving that. Owners, contractors, local organizations, unions, and the public sector all need to work together in partnerships, from the local to the national level.

We're investing in upskilling training initiatives internally, and we're working with educational institutions to create training programs that allow us to develop a pipeline of talent. On the U.S. Gulf Coast, we have some great partnerships with community and technical colleges to develop customized programs that align with specific project needs and help us tap into a more diverse range of talent pools. Our apprenticeship program, for example, helps prepare students where they do on-site training as beginner craft professionals. They start with classroom and job site training, and if they pass, they're offered an opportunity on one of our local projects. Just this May, we hired 15 graduating students for jobs on our Port Arthur LNG project.

We're also very proud of our long-standing partnerships with organizations like the Society of Women Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the National Society of Black Engineers. Every year, we identify and hire good candidates through these partnerships. We're also working with some of these organizations and others to reach out to young people at middle school and high school levels to encourage them to pursue careers in the STEM fields. It’s quite important to engage early and inspire children by exposing them to some of these STEM opportunities. We are trying to build awareness that there are meaningful, long term-rewarding careers in construction, with great financial rewards. 

We see the long-term investment, so we do not just focus on our current projects but are also looking 10-20 years into the future.

Successfully pioneering new and innovative technologies, designs and ways of working can rarely be achieved in isolation. Can you discuss the importance of partnerships in building the next generation of facilities?

Bechtel focuses on the commercial deployment of projects and associated technology, so we don't get too much involved in terms of R&D, but we do encourage innovation within the industry and build visibility of the emerging technology landscape within our own organization. We work with some technology companies who are at an early stage of their development to help them understand – based on our experience – the path to successful deployment of their technologies at scale. New technologies are key to a wide range of energy transition projects. These can't be implemented in isolation. Some examples of innovations on our projects are – the use of robots for the automated installation of solar panels or the integration of new process technology for a new type of facility. All innovation and technology require collaboration from a range of parties: the project owners, the technology providers and, of course, the EPC. We see ourselves as playing a pivotal role in driving that collaboration, identifying what needs to be done for our customers and how the different parties can come together to have a successful outcome.

How important is the relationship between owner and EPC? And what advice would you give to owners on how to work most effectively with their EPC partner?

The relationship between an owner and the EPC is critical to the successful delivery of projects. You need a strong relationship throughout the lifecycle of the project. In our view, that starts with early engagement which allows a good common understanding of, and alignment on, the scope, the costs, and the approach to a project from the outset. In our experience, when we're brought in as an EPC partner early in the development process, we get the opportunity to work with a customer to explore design optionality and consider the different commercial structures that can underpin a successful contracting approach. Ultimately, that results in a stronger and more executable project. That's really the key to success, so my advice to any project owner would be to get your EPC partner involved early.

What are some of the most exciting technologies/projects you are seeing implemented currently? And what are some of the latest solutions Bechtel is deploying/developing to create the next generation of projects?

Technology has always been part and parcel of what we're doing, and we're always looking at the new emerging technologies that will benefit the energy industry. We acknowledge the need to bring forward these new technologies and innovations, while at the same time emphasize the importance of having mature, proven, and scalable technologies. We're certainly excited to be working on a range of carbon capture, blue and green hydrogen and ammonia, methanol, and sustainable aviation fuel projects as part of the new wave of energy transition. Some of these first mover projects come with risks: we can help owners navigate those and try to find the right kind of risk-sharing mechanism that works for them as well as the EPC contractor and their financial partners, governments, energy providers, and investors.

When it comes to the development of these technologies, collaboration is key. I'll give you three examples of things that we're involved in today. 

We are partnered with Extrakt Solutions to identify commercial opportunities and provide engineering services to support the commercialization of TNS™, which is a solid-liquid separation technology. This technology addresses the long-standing challenges of mine tailings, dewatering, and product recovery in a sustainable and effective manner by separating slurry into usable base minerals and resources. 

Secondly, climate change is having a significant impact on our industry, and we are exploring ways to decrease the carbon footprint of our operations. In the construction industry, concrete is a huge contributor to that carbon footprint and represents 8% of global emissions. We – along with many others in the public and private sector – are working to address and minimize the emissions coming from this material. We're partnering with suppliers and academic research institutions to accelerate the different ways to decarbonize concrete to the reduce greenhouse gas emissions on our projects.
The third example is Bechtel’s strategic approach to supporting innovations in water management. To help address rising concerns of water scarcity in dry drilling areas like the U.S. Permian Basin, Bechtel saw an opportunity to give wastewater a second chance at life. We have developed the Low Energy Ejector Desalination System – LEEDS, for short – to treat produced water that was traditionally disposed of and help our customers find new avenues for reuse. Bechtel has partnered with Five Point Energy to prove out this technology in the field. LEEDS is capable of treating produced water with a lower energy footprint, creating a new supply of clean water for customers and communities and reducing not only the need for water disposal, but also the demand for limited freshwater resources.

These technologies are just the beginning of a portfolio of technologies we are developing to address the energy transition and help create a better world.

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