Black & Veatch building for the future
By Tom Jackson01 September 2021
After months of wrangling, the US Congress finally agreed to a massive, US$1.2 trillion new infrastructure bill. In it are provisions for a US$7.5 billion national network of electric car charging stations, US$73 billion for ‘smart grid’ projects such as wind, solar and battery powered electrification, and US$8 billion to develop clean hydrogen fuels.
For US-based Black & Veatch, a US$3.0 billion engineering, construction, and asset management company, the timing couldn’t be better. For decades the Kansas City company’s engineers have been designing and building new technology-enhanced infrastructure projects, from simple solar installations and electric vehicle charging stations to an intelligent highway backbone along the entire 220 mile (354km) length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The company’s global reach also includes projects in the UK, Europe, Central and South America, Canada, Africa and the Asia-Pacific region. But in the US conditions are favourable for taking the next big leap into intelligent transportation systems, or what Randal Kaufman, sales director for Black & Veatch’s Transformative Technologies business, calls the ‘killer’ app.
“My first impression of the Biden plan is that it helps to have a policy directive, regardless of the details,” says Kaufman. “It makes it easier for businesses, institutions and individuals to plan and the confidence to make investments in technology, resources and support far into the future.”
The emphasis on smarter infrastructure is not just the fad of the day but a realistic appraisal of where the country needs to be 50 years from now, says Kaufman.
“We can’t just build back what we have today,” he says. “That’s already obsolete. We need to design for resiliency, greater sustainability and social equity.”
Funding infrastructure projects
While infrastructure generally means large public works projects to many in the US, Kaufman believes private financing and corporate involvement will play a prominent role in many aspects of our future (and greener) infrastructure. Government will assist, he says, with providing tax credits and regulatory guidance.
In the past, government incentives helped green infrastructure builders and technology reach economies of scale on manufacturing, production and deployment. As a result, prices for solar, wind and battery power have come down dramatically in the last ten years, giving green infrastructure forward momentum.
However, the social aspects of a new generation of infrastructure can’t be ignored, says Kaufman. An example: rooftop solar panels are great for people who own single family homes. But people who live in apartments see fewer benefits. “That’s where the government can help, by steering investments to the right place. Ultimately it has to be the private markets that are incentivised to build these,” he says.
And those market implications are huge. “There are tremendous job opportunities at every level: for contractors, civil construction, electrical construction, mechanical construction, software and the engineering to support it,” Kaufman says. “And of course, you’ve got the whole OEM supply chain for technology.”
Zero carbon construction
Kaufman says intelligent and decarbonised transportation systems will emerge in areas with logistical advantages that meet a number of important criteria.
These hubs will start with existing transportation infrastructure but will be able to step up to the next level with affordable housing, favourable government, and corporations with a willingness to invest in alternative energy sources such as solar and battery storage for electric vehicle charging, natural gas and eventually hydrogen fuel capabilities.
The central valley of California is one such area. “It’s already a big aviation technology hub, as well as a ground transportation hub and it’s one of the few places left in California with affordable housing,” Kaufman says.
“If you follow the trends, there has been tremendous growth in these secondary and tertiary housing markets. There is potential for a whole new zero carbon national transportation logistics network with new regional hubs emerging that accelerate service and alleviate stresses on the existing hubs.”
One of Black & Veatch’s proprietary engineering concepts is what it calls ‘ZEV Multi-Energy Hubs.’ ZEV stands for Zero Emission Vehicles. These are vehicle fuelling stations that include electric vehicle (EV) charging, natural gas, low carbon fuels and, eventually, hydrogen fuels. All these can be packaged in a single location that creates its own power supply, sells EV charging and low-carbon fuels, and exports electricity.
What makes the ZEV Multi-Energy Hub a game-changer is the ability to generate its own fuel onsite – electricity from solar and battery power or hydrogen. Derived from natural gas or electrolysis, hydrogen can be used to power electricity generators, but also as a transportation fuel for vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells.
The company has several projects underway that include EV charging, battery energy storage and solar and is working on plans for hubs that also include natural gas and hydrogen fuel cell charging.
“Truck stops are already starting to deploy EV charging, so there is no reason why they couldn’t put in hydrogen or solar panels and battery storage in the future,” says Kaufman.
Hydrogen is still an expensive option. Making it onsite requires a larger footprint than a traditional filling station, but it has a lot of upsides as well. Truck and automotive OEMs are continuing to pursue hydrogen fuel cells as a power option, and hydrogen, a true zero emissions fuel, is easily created by electrolysis. Plus it’s easy to store. “It’s a great complement to any utility,” says Kaufman.
Black & Veatch has already constructed 19 of the first 39 hydrogen filling stations built in California and is also doing feasibility studies for hydrogen generation and fuelling of mining equipment and hydrogen coal-plant conversions in the western US.
Infrastructure for the future
One of the unique aspects of Black & Veatch is how much the company and its 8,000-plus employees focus on the future of infrastructure. The company does not just bid on jobs when bids are let.
It is aggressively designing whole systems and logistics plans for a newer, more equitable and greener infrastructure to come. They are, to use the Wayne Gretzky ice hockey analogy, “skating to where the puck is going to be.”
For the last 50 years, the US has been failing in this regard. The American Society of Civil Engineers routinely gives the county a grade of C-minus or D for the condition of its infrastructure.
The US cannot afford to make that same mistake again, says Kaufman. “You really do have to think years into the future,” he says. “If you are building infrastructure now you have to ask, will this serve our purposes in 25 years?”