POWER Interview: The Future of Power Sector Engineering Amid Market Disruptions

Danish engineering, design, and consultancy firm Ramboll Group in December  entered into an agreement to acquire U.S-based engineering and design consultancy OBG. Founded in 1945, OBG has delivered integrated engineering solutions within water, energy, environment and advanced manufacturing, and today, the company says it has extensive client relationships in both the private and public sectors, and a particularly strong position in the eastern half of the U.S. For Ramboll, which added ENVIRON, a U.S-based environmental and health specialist firm to its portfolio in 2014, the deal shows marked interest in the U.S. market, which has been beset by a number of disruptions. 

In an interview last January, OBG’s CEO Jim Fox and Neil Webb, OBG’s director for growth and markets, provided significant insight into trends affecting the vast world of engineering in the power sector. 

POWER: Disruptions are reshaping the power sector. What are you seeing from an engineering firm’s perspective?

Jim Fox, OBG, CEO; Neil Webb, OBG, Director for Growth and Markets:  In the global power industry, we have seen migration from large centralized power solutions to more localized solutions addressing energy demand closer to the locations where energy is needed. The significant upturn in renewable energy and changing policies and attitudes of consumers are driving many more clean and sustainable solutions. One example is the rapidly developing large-scale onshore and offshore wind markets, where many states in the U.S. and countries around the world are venturing into new opportunities for energy resources.

What does it mean for a company like OBG to join Ramboll? How does this expand its prospects in the power world?

OBG and Ramboll are both purpose-driven companies. The similarities in mission, vision, and values of both organizations are striking, and both have a strong collaborative culture focusing on people as the main assets and differentiators. Both organizations are client-centric and technically strong with deep and long-standing client relationships. We both also have a strong focus on innovation and technical excellence. In terms of offering traditional engineering and project management services, OBG complements the front-end consultancy services Ramboll currently offers in the U.S. with full service solutions in collaboration with the rest of Ramboll’s offerings.

We now combine local experience with a global knowledgebase, constantly striving to achieve inspiring and exacting solutions that make a genuine difference to clients and society at large.

In the power industry, Ramboll has a well-known global presence in energy from a clean energy perspective, including offshore wind, district energy, and waste-to-energy solutions, as well as digitalization around smart cities. In the U.S., many states and local jurisdictions are moving their policies to be more strongly aligned with what Ramboll has demonstrated in Europe, especially in the Nordics. OBG’s presence in the U.S. market, and our relationships with clients, closely aligns with many of those state and local jurisdictions striving to achieve similar goals.

As an engineering consultancy group, what market trends as they involve engineering and problem solving are you seeing the power industry? Does it differ by region?

As previously mentioned,the U.S. is undergoing a significant grid modernization effort and a change in the fundamental composition of our energy resource mix. As those resources are co-located closer to loads, utilities are trying to manage the dynamic and changing nature of energy resources that are interconnected to their distribution networks, as opposed to large central plant generation. The engineering efforts required to plan, monitor, and manage such a high multiple of energy resources is ultimately changing inherent engineering approaches, from analysis through design and implementation.

This does vary by region, since the natural environment dictates the selection of the most appropriate clean energy resource. In the western U.S., for example, we are seeing high saturation of solar or photovoltaic (PV) systems, while in other areas of the country, wind resources are being tapped from the plains to the eastern seaboard. Perhaps some of the most significant challenges remain in high-density urban centers like the Northeast Corridor, where more thought must be put into concepts and solutions like waste-to-energy, district energy, and energy storage in concert with efficiency and intelligent systems.

Is the industry undergoing any notable changes?

We are currently seeing an upsurge in IOT (internet of things) devices that are monitoring every aspect of human behavior, and which are driving down the cost of monitoring energy systems. How the energy industry addresses the sheer abundance of all this data and puts it to meaningful use for the management of our systems is creating many new opportunities. At the same time, we are also seeing tremendous investment in emerging technologies, such as energy storage, that offer the promise of yet another transformation. The markets currently are searching for business models and energy policies, which can monetize the benefits of such technology and provide us with more flexibility in our overall energy network.

What is the interest in the U.S. sector? Are you projecting an uptick of specific types of projects?

Global climate agreements are one way we are moving toward the emerging trends discussed so far. There are a number of active solicitations regarding the development of offshore winds in the U.S., primarily in the eastern seaboard. Many states also have put forth ambitious statements about their overall decarbonization plans. Therefore, we can anticipate some momentum being built around and towards clean energy, including migration to cleaner fuels like we are seeing in the transition from coal to natural gas. Another area where we anticipate change is the electrical vehicle market over the next decade.

What challenges is the industry facing?

The most significant challengeisthe reduction in human capital that we have seen in the industry. As older generations are retiring, there is a gap in workforce with power systems and power engineering experience. While that trend is changing with many new graduates entering the workforce, we are facing a generation gap of mid-level talent.

What competition do you encounter in the U.S. and how does the company plan to overcome that?

As a company, we identified that one of the challenges we needed to address, as a result of trends in the industry, was finding a partner to bring global expertise to meet those emerging trends and the capability to deliver projects across the U.S. and the world.

We see joining forces with Ramboll as a tremendous opportunity to widen our client base in the U.S., as well as extend our client relationships globally. In addition, we are bringing together world-class thought leadership and the capacity to solve the challenges caused by global megatrends such as urbanization, climate change, and resource scarcity. This combination will result in more growth opportunities for our talented people and innovative solutions for our clients.

Would you suggest any power-related stories that you feel aren’t getting the coverage they deserve? Any issues that ought to be spot lit?

The power industry has a long history and is well-established. Currently, it is undergoing a significant transformation that has been largely initiated by a tremendous amount of innovation from non-traditional sources. It would be interesting to explore the top 10 innovations that might be influencing our industry in the next five years.

For example, we are currently working on innovations to automate and streamline the integration of distributed generation into utility networks. We also are working on optimizations for energy storage, since these assets can behave like a load or like a resource and can offer many discrete services for either the customer, the utility, or the renewable developer.

—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)