As friends discuss projects they’re working on that last a few months, Andrew Degon can only laugh to himself.
Degon, vice president of engineering and construction at Boston-based Advanced Power Services NA Inc., can go years before he and the project development team finally see a construction project through to fruition. He’s pretty close to completing one right now. A 700-MW combined-cycle facility in Ohio’s Carroll County is in its construction phase and due to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2017. Planning for the project started in 2012, and it became one of Degon’s first responsibilities when he joined Advanced Power in 2013.
“I have ultimate responsibility for all engineering and technical aspects of developing, financing, and constructing power projects in North America,” Degon says of his role with the company. “The beginning entails site selection and making sure we’re picking a spot that won’t give us any technical difficulties. Then, I have to figure out what the plant configuration will be. What type of technology will it use to satisfy the needs of the market?”
At that point, Degon must sharpen his focus for the permitting process. He ensures that all of the technical details and commitments made to permit agencies for construction limitations or operational limitations are in line with the capabilities of the technology chosen for the plant. Further detail work awaits him in the next stage, financing.
“That requires a pretty robust financial model with a number of key technical parameters in it, all of which fall under my purview to make sure they’re correct,” Degon says, and adds that these projects can take more than three years to develop and finance, and another three years to construct—which is where the Carroll County project now stands. Considering the complexity of the projects, Degon says the extended development timelines are understandable.
“These are extremely complex projects that cost hundreds of millions—if not billions—of dollars to construct and require a number of federal, state, and local permits,” he says. “The real challenge of a developer is to focus on making sure we’re approaching development to minimize costs until the project can generate money, which may not happen for more than five years after we start a project.”
To manage it mentally, Degon looks at every project like a four-year stint at college.
“If you focus on nothing but graduating while you’re in school, it will seem like a long four years,” he says. “Really, it’s about focusing on the tasks at hand. Whether it’s site selection or permitting, you just have to focus on that task. If you do that and do each task well, you will look up from your desk after three years and see [that] you’ve developed a successful project.”
Managing projects on a task-by-task basis also helps him ensure that every detail is considered thoroughly, which is crucial in that every project has its own special challenges. In Carroll County, for example, the plant’s landlocked location made dealing with wastewater tricky. At first glance, there was no place to put it.
As a result, Degon had to figure out a way to recycle the wastewater instead. One option he considered was called a zero-liquid wastewater system, but there were two problems as a result. First, the systems are costly, and second, it can be a challenge for users to operate smoothly.
“We came up with an alternate scheme to use demineralized trailers, which look like regular tractor trailers, only [the] water treatment equipment [is inside],” Degon says. “This equipment can remove any of the dissolved solids and clean it well enough [so] we’re able to recycle our water.”
Finding those types of solutions represents his biggest challenge on the job.
“Combined-cycle power plant configurations haven’t changed much,” he says. “It’s easy to fall into a rut and do things the way they’ve always been done. You have to challenge yourself when you come up against roadblocks.”
For the Carroll County project, Degon could have easily discounted the idea of using demineralized trailers. He’s employed them in past projects, but only for treating incoming water, not wastewater.
“But the Carroll County plant is an air-cooled facility that uses very little water to begin with,” he says. “Because we’re using a relatively small amount of good-quality water, we won’t have to change the trailers too often. It’s about applying experience and figuring out how to use existing technology in new and innovative ways.”
In a couple years, Degon will be able to see those trailers in action—not that he’s thinking about that. After all, in this line of work, he knows better than to think too far ahead.
Q&A with Andrew Degon
Did you study to be an engineer?
I started as a biology major at Rutgers. After three semesters, I got tired of the memorization and regurgitation the curriculum required. I had friends who were in engineering who were always coming home with interesting problems they had to work through. They were using what they knew of math and science to reason out a solution to a problem. I made the switch [to engineering] during my sophomore year.
How did you get interested in the energy industry?
In my senior year, the elective course I wanted to take was filled. I saw a course on power plants. It sounded like a clunker, but it was the only thing available. When I started looking for a job, I got a call from a small consulting firm in New Jersey, Joseph Technology Corporation. They worked in the energy industry and saw I’d put that course on my résumé. It was my entrance into the power industry and I never looked back.
What do you think you would be doing now if things hadn’t happened the way they did?
I’m not sure what I’d be doing, but I think it would have to be a similar type of role. I’m not designing widgets, or machinery, or other things that most people associate engineers with. I’m providing a level of technical and scientific knowledge to the world of business that only an engineer can provide. This role requires you to be every bit as good of a businessman as an engineer, and that’s ultimately what I’m wired for.