Maintaining our ageing assets

Sam Stephens | 12 May 2015 | Comments

Maintaining our ageing assets as we look to future solutions

In the UK, and similarly in many developed nations around the world, we are increasingly reliant upon major infrastructure commissioned in the 1970s and 80s, more often than not by government funded organisations. Many of our power stations and North Sea oil installations are reaching the end of their working lives, yet we are still heavily reliant upon them to power our cities, heat our homes and fuel our transport. While we set about providing the engineering solutions for the 21st century, there is still much work to be done to keep our existing 20th century assets going for a bit longer. The drivers are not just about keeping the lights on….it’s about meeting increasing demand, low carbon imperatives and maintaining maximum safety and resilience in the face of extreme events. Incidents such as Fukushima and Deepwater Horizon redouble our focus on safety, and political instability in the Ukraine and Middle East emphasise the importance of making our energy system resilient to supply disruption.

Engineers are playing a key role in ensuring the operation of our existing infrastructure remains economical, safe and sustainable. Atkins’ strategic partnership with EDF Energy is helping to ensure the UK’s eight nuclear power stations continue to supply low carbon, reliable electricity to businesses and homes across the UK. We are at the heart of the work to safely extend the life of those stations, while we also support the development of the next fleet of new nuclear reactors in Britain. This work spans years and decades, and includes making sure the graphite cores of the Advanced Gas Reactors (the type of reactor all of our nuclear stations use) remain stable to allow safe shutdown during an earthquake, or the boilers continue to provide cooling following extreme events as they reach the end of their design life. Our engineers are also close on hand when events require additional support, from enhancing safety in response to the 2011 Japanese earthquake, to design and assessment of modifications that can be made while the plant is offline for maintenance and inspection.

A similar story can be told when we look offshore, to the North Sea oil fields. Here, Atkins engineers provide full lifecycle support to around half the existing structures operating today. This covers everything from asset integrity management to decommissioning and we’re working for oil majors such as BP through our global strategic partnership, energy companies like Centrica and independent operators like Talisman. With the oil price at its lowest for four years, there is an increasing drive to maximise the output from our existing platforms, while maintaining the highest levels of safety to the operators and environment.

For over 30 years our engineers have provided trusted support and advice. The same is true back onshore, where our reliance upon coal for power is reducing, but we remain dependent on the Atkins engineered Drax power station, which still satisfies up to 10% of the UK’s demand. We started working with Drax back in the 1950s and with increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions our engineers are now looking at innovative methods of retrofitting the power station – such as substituting up to 85% of coal for biomass in half of its burners. While simple in principle, this is a major and complex engineering challenge. In situations such as this, through life cycle support helps ensure modifications are carried out safely and economically.

At the heart of keeping existing power stations going, oil and gas platforms operating and transforming new technologies into viable forms of commercial electricity generation, engineers are the ones buying us time. Time with secure, affordable energy until complex decisions are made about what the next generation of energy infrastructure should look like. With such deep understanding of the current state of our energy infrastructure as well as the challenges and opportunities of the past, engineers are as vital to shaping an extraordinary energy future as investors and politicians – and they probably have a slightly greater sense of urgency.