Bill Allard is a principal with the engineering firm of Burns & McDonnell, which is based in Kansas City, Mo., and this fall marked the opening of its Portland office. Nationwide, the company has more than 4,000 employees; the Portland office is expected to soon have about 80. Many of the employees in Maine are working on the Maine Power Reliability Program, a $1.4 billion Central Maine Power Co. project to upgrade the state’s electricity grid. Burns & McDonnell is an employee-owned company that does not disclose financial information. Allard, who heads the company’s CMP project work, declined to disclose his salary.
Q: When were you hired by Burns & McDonnell and how did you gain experience working on large power projects?
A: I started out working with Vermont Electric Power Co. I came up through the ranks and as I worked my way up, I was managing a couple of facilities and then became a project manager. I started working with Burns & McDonnell at that time and went to Connecticut in 2005 when the company opened a regional office there. We started with three people in 2005 and I think we’re up to 325 people now. Burns & McDonnell hired me to be a construction manager because of my experience building substations and transmission lines, and I had a lot of experience working with the independent systems operators (organizations that coordinate and monitor electric power systems) in New England and spent three years working on a very large project – building substations from Middletown, Conn., to Norwalk, (Conn.), including a section that involved installing an underground cable.
Q: When did you come to Maine?
A: Back in 2009, because of my experience, I was asked to come up here and work with Central Maine Power on the Maine Power Reliability Program. We started right at the beginning, when Central Maine Power was in the permitting stage and planning the job and the outages, and to really plan the job from start to finish.
Q: You planned the outages?
A: We planned it so that we were working in a system that we were trying to improve, but we didn’t want to make situations where we were causing problems. We planned on probably over a thousand outages. We’re working on lines from Orrington to Eliot, and as you work on this big system, you have to plan it so that we don’t affect the customers. When it’s all said and done, we think it’s probably not quite a thousand outages and we’re near the end now – we’ve had, to date, 805 outages, but it’s done in such a way to limit the impact on customers.
Q: What kind of constraints have you faced?
A: Central Maine Power, when they decided they wanted to do this project, they looked at their existing transmission line corridors and the land they already had and were trying to keep all of these power lines in those corridors. In a lot of cases, we had lines that had been here since the 1960s and we needed to rebuild some of those lines to make room for the new ones. They needed to be rebuilt to the newest standards and built in a different configuration to make room for new lines.
Q: What part of the project does Burns & McDonnell directly oversee?
A: Our role is to manage all this work. We’ve got about 70 people working on this and some ancillary support from Kansas City and Wallingford, Conn. This is a reliability project, and reliability projects have been happening around the country to strengthen the power grid so it can keep up with the loads that are happening today and beyond today. We all have cell phones and computers and chargers and a greater dependence on electricity. You take a system that was built in the ‘60s and it stresses the system. If you had a major issue, you could lose power. So utilities have looked at the systems and the redundancy and are looking to make the system more reliable.
Q: When did this focus on upgrading reliability begin?
A: It really goes back to the blackout of 2003. It was the one that started up around Chicago and Ohio and it spread all the way down to New York City. I was working for VELCO at the time and I was inside a substation and we were commissioning new equipment. When the blackout happened, a guy was doing testing in the substation and the lights were blinking and alarms were going off and at first I thought, “What did we do?” After the blackout there was a report (on what happened), and that’s what spawned all this work around the country.
Q: How long will you be working on the Maine project?
A: The schedule takes us into mid-2015. We’re about 70 percent complete. (The power grid) will be physically stronger, and it will add redundancy, with two lines that go to the same point, so a lot of this is to create redundancy and get more capacity at the end of the day. This was not a capacity issue, it was designed as a reliability project, but naturally, if you look out, there are some benefits and capacity does increase when you do this, but it was not necessarily a goal.
Q: What’s next for the Maine office after the project is done?
A: In 2015, we’ll support projects all over the Northeast. We’re working on over $7 billion worth of projects in New England and we’re part of the support for that. We have people based in Maine working on projects throughout the Northeast, New England and Canada. As people come off this (CMP) project, people will come to Portland and will support a lot of other projects. We’re also doing local projects, and a lot of upstate New York projects we’re handling 100 percent out of here. Some people are out in the field, and the plan is to have at least 50 people in this office working on non-Maine power reliability projects and working with other industries. Transmission and distribution is just one of them.
Q: Are you able to find enough qualified employees in-state?
A: We’ve done very well finding employees here in the state of Maine. I think we probably have 50 percent of our employees who are either from Maine or somewhere in northern New England. Maine has some really good engineering schools. We have several people who went to the University of Maine. When we started, we had a hard time getting our name out, but as people started seeing our trucks all over the state, we got more and more interest and we’re still growing here today.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org