Never be afraid of a new challenge3 March 2022
IWP&DC interviews Karen Atkinson, SMEC’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer for South East Asia, who has been elected to the board of the International Hydropower Association in the East Asia and Pacific region.
What does it mean to be elected to the board of the International Hydropower Association?
I am passionate about the exciting future of hydropower as a core to the world’s renewable energy solutions and excited that IHA, as the leading industry body, is proactive in shaping conversations within the industry and with critical stakeholder groups who can advance hydropower development.
As a board member of IHA, my role is to promote IHA’s message across Asia Pacific and look for opportunities to connect their work in clean energy, climate, sustainability, finance, and water, with policy makers, financiers, developers and community groups and NGOs.
Hydropower has a huge role to play in the transition away from fossil fuels as the primary source of large-scale power supply and grid stability, and to complement wind and solar through using pumped storage as a water battery.
You have over 20 years of experience working within the Asia Pacific region. What are the main opportunities for and the main barriers to hydropower development there?
Asia Pacific has an estimated feasible hydropower potential of up to 2777TWh/year with 1100GW of indicative potential hydropower capacity that is not yet developed and could be a major source of the region’s electricity needs.
There are several barriers to development that need to be overcome. Hydropower projects have a high initial capital cost to develop and generate revenue over a very long period. Many financiers’ models do not take account of this particular return profile, and the important role that hydro can play in grid stability is not recognised in revenue pricing strategies making it hard to secure financing.
The other major barrier is that hydropower projects in the past have been developed without proper consideration of the biodiversity and social impacts that a project can have. This has created a backlash which puts off developers of potential projects. IHA has established sustainability standards that are a global benchmark against which projects can be assessed, and even certified, to demonstrate that these important criteria have been fully considered during the project’s lifecycle.
What role can SMEC’s Centre of Excellence in Malaysia play in sustainable hydropower development in the region?
Our centre of excellence supports many projects, and we always partner collaboratively with our clients to help them develop and implement the best possible project. SMEC’s team can cover the full lifecycle from early-stage feasibility studies in hydrology, geology, and environmental and social impacts, though detailed design of all types of dam and hydropower plants. We support clients with construction supervision and contract management, and at the other end of a project lifecycle also offer dam safety and hydro plant rehabilitation services.
Key projects in West Malaysia that the team have been involved in date back to the 1970s when SMEC assisted Tenaga Nasional Berhad with the feasibility study followed by the design and construction of the 400MW Terengganu (Kenyir) Hydropower Project. Subsequently we delivered various services up to the end of construction for the 600MW Pergua HPP, 250MW Hulu Terengganu HPP and the 372MW Ulu Jelai HPP. The 300MW Nenggiri HPP is about to go into construction, and we delivered services on the 210MW Telom HPP and 168MW Tekai HPP.
In East Malaysia SMEC has been working for Sarawak Energy and our partnership started with the feasibility study of the 108MW Batang Ai Hydropower Project followed by its design and construction supervision and commissioning in 1985. Various construction services were provided for the 2400MW Bakun HPP and now for the 1285 Baleh HPP and studies and designs for the 1285MW Limbang HPP, 1200MW Baram HPP and 300MW Bakun Capacity Expansion.
In the region SMEC has also provided services on the 500MW Wawa Pumped Storage Project in the Philippines, 2400MW Son La HPP and 189MW Dong Nai 3 HPP in Vietnam and we are also supporting SMEC Australia with the 2000MW Snowy 2.0 Pumped Storage Project.
One of our key clients in Malaysia, Sarawak Energy Berhad is an early adopter and a passionate advocate of the IHA standards. We are now also working with Fortescue Future Industries, another IHA member, and hope to encourage more of our clients to adopt these standards. SMEC is the only consultant in Asia Pacific to have an IHA accredited assessor on our staff.
Looking back over your career so far, what have been the key lessons for you?
I have certainly learnt never to be afraid to take on a new challenge. When I worked on the Ross River Dam Upgrade in Australia I worked alongside one of the world’s experts on radial gates. It was not something I had been involved in before and was quite intimidating at the time but I learnt so much through the project.
What advice would you have for other women working within the hydro industry – especially those just starting out in their careers? Have gender issues ever been a factor for you within your career?
I have never found gender to be a barrier in my career in engineering. I think my best advice for anyone starting their career is to get broad experience across design, construction, safeguards and commercial aspects of a project. A good understanding of the full project lifecycle will equip you to actively contribute to successful projects, not just from a technical perspective but whole-of-project delivery.
Is there a memorable project that you have worked on and would like to share with our readers?
The first ever hydro project I worked on was two small schemes (3MW & 6.5MW) in the highlands of Viti Levu in Fiji back in 2005. Fiji has a huge dependence on imported diesel as a power source, but also has plenty of hydro opportunity. Being small schemes there were no enormous technical challenges, but we could not afford a large team, so I had to get involved in all aspects of the project and learnt a lot along the way. The project was my first experience of working in a developing country and remote environment. I found it so rewarding and enjoyable, that I have stayed involved in the industry ever since!
In terms of large projects, it has been extremely satisfying to work with SMEC to successfully complete the Ulu Jelai project for Tenaga Nasional Berhad. ?