The story begins way before my time in 1892 – when gold was discovered in Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in the state of Western Australia.
Gold is arguably the most unusual commodity there is – except for some minor uses in jewellery or electronics, the value of the metal motivates a large amount of effort to dig the stuff out of the ground only to have it cast into gold bricks and placed in a vault underground somewhere else.
As Kalgoorlie was (and is) reputed to have the richest square mile of gold anywhere in the world – this has motivated significant infrastructure over the years aimed at moving gold from its natural underground setting to an artificial luxury setting (which is also likely to be underground but probably well-lit and nicely air-conditioned). The first major infrastructure project was the building of the goldfields water pipeline which was proposed in 1895 and completed in 1903. This was required to pipe water to the goldfields which are located in arid terrain. The water was required to support the burgeoning population of Kalgoorlie. The pipeline was and still is an impressive achievement, over 600 km long (roughly the distance from London to Edinburgh) and built at a time when motor vehicles were rare, using pumps driven by steam engines, which had to use the pipeline itself to obtain the water to operate. The road that went with the pipeline was virtually incidental.
While the project itself was a success, the story is also unfortunately tinged with tragedy. The chief engineer of the project, C.Y.O’Connor, was driven to suicide by a vicious media campaign which strongly criticized the project.
Fast forward nearly one hundred years to the 1980’s and another corridor was built with the motivation of getting gold out of the ground, in this case a 680km electrical power transmission line. Stage 1 built in 1984 was a 220kV link rated at 70 MW, stage 2 in 1989 uprated the link to 150 MW (ultimately used to dig more gold). I was personally involved in the second stage of this project as a junior design and commissioning engineer.
Both stages used special purpose voltage regulation equipment described as static var compensators (SVC’s) which were necessary for the link to work at such a relatively low voltage. This is now a standard technique but in the 1980’s it was highly innovative and ground breaking – this was the first such transmission design of this type in the world. By using SVC’s and a lower transmission voltage, we were able to reduce the capital cost of the project by about $ 100 million in 1980’s dollars.
This was one of the first major projects I was involved with and it is interesting to compare how this project was carried out compared to the way large projects are now carried out. Specifically:
- Email did not yet exist – but we had Fax machines which we used to communicate between the client (based in Perth), our design office (based in Sydney on the opposite side of the country), and the site offices based at Kalgoorlie and Merredin (about halfway between Kalgoorlie and Perth).
- Computers were still a novelty – we shared Apple Macintoshes between two engineers, and the drafting was done using drawing boards. We had to get special permission to take the computers to site which we used mainly to produce project Gantt charts, printing off wire labels and updating a stock control database.
The way we organised ourselves was also different – these days it is common for teams to be spread across several offices in different states and countries – if you are an engineer reading this you probably already know how difficult this can make communication despite now having access to tools like email and Lync.
In contrast our design team was in the same office and our desks abutted each other so we could easily overhear phone calls – our Project Manager tracked progress on a printed Gantt chart – but that was not his main role. He was chief morale officer and motivator and was effectively tasked with getting the best out of the team – this is something that is lacking in the way we do projects now – the informal communication and nipping problems in the butt is not possible if you don’t even know the people working on your team because you are based in another office.
The designers became the commissioning engineers – this is also rare these days which is a great pity in my view. Every designer should at least once in their career commission their own designs so they can find out firsthand how they work in real life as opposed what they do on a screen.
Using such techniques we completed phase 2 of the project in record time (less than 12 months) from client order through to final commissioning. This was required because even though the gold had been underground for millions of years – once discovered it is absolutely essential to dig it up as quickly as possible.
After our exercise in connecting Kalgoorlie to the grid – the energy supply was still not enough (more gold had been found) - the Goldfields Gas Transmission (GGT) pipeline was built which ended up being 1,380 kilometres long.
Gas first flowed through the pipeline in June 1996, reaching Kalgoorlie in September 1996.
So we ended up with three corridors pressed into the service for the production of gold; water, electricity and gas. Not to mention the road and the railway as well.
I had never heard of the water pipeline designed by C.Y.O’Connor before I drove the 6 ½ hour trip from Perth to Kalgoorlie. It is hard to miss because it is right beside the road. The story I was told was that he took his own life because he thought that the water would not come out the other end after the pumps were started. This was incorrect, and I am sure I knew this at the time. He was too good an engineer to think that the water might not make the trip. A simple search on the internet reveals the true story – which does not cast a good light on the politicians of the day.
The pipeline he designed to provide water to a growing community of gold prospectors is now also used to irrigate wheat fields in an area that would otherwise be semi-arid scrub. The wheat grown in this region now feeds millions of people in Australia and many other parts of the world. All watered from one pipe built in 1903.
Probably the greatest compliment you can pay an engineer is to use what he/she has created for some worthwhile purpose – not necessarily (as in this case) what was originally intended. It is more lasting than the certificate in a nice plastic frame which is what we usually get.
What about the electricity system created by our teams in Perth, Merredin, Kalgoorlie and Sydney back in the 1980’s, is that still used? Yes it is – and it turns out in ways we didn’t think of when we designed it.
It turns out that Merredin is quite windy. This is obvious in hindsight when you see how flat the place is. Accordingly it now has WA'S largest renewable energy project, the Collgar Wind Farm connected to the main power grid at Merredin substation. The 206 MW, Collgar Wind Farm was for a short time the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere.
So gold (which is not that useful really but highly prized nonetheless) has ultimately enabled food to be grown which feeds millions and pollution free power to be produced which supplies millions of homes and businesses (and gold mines) – but no one actually foresaw that all this would happen.
I suppose when you take that first step you don’t know where you will ultimately end up. It’s important we keep those steps coming.
For more information contact Bruce Miller: firstname.lastname@example.org