Work as a Feat
2013-09-30 | Text: Interview with Alexander Shtegman | Photo ©: | 3580

 

A power plant building or a long-distance transmission circuit contraction is a hard and demanding challenge. However, when it comes to a large scale program consisting of numerous projects like the aforementioned ones, we can say that this is about national pride, especially, if those projects are implemented in the climatic extremes. Today we have a conversation with one of those men who created the power generation sector of the Russian Far East. Meet Mr. Alexander Shtegman, currently the Chief of the Fuelling Department of the Energy Forecasting Agency.

 

– Mr. Shtegman, please, tell us about yourself. How and why did you become a power engineer?

 

I am from the Russian Far East and fifty three years of my life are connected with this region. Even now, when I work and live in Moscow, I still deal with the Russian Far East to some extent.

I spent my childhood in a city with a beautiful name – Svobodny (Free), located on the banks of Zeya river. The river is broad and deep there and it is a swift-flowing river. There was overflowing every year in July and August and it was especially bad in 1958 and 1984. We were kids and we were catching logs floating on the water, making rafts, and were battling. Irkutsk Hydro Power Plant (HPP) had been launched and Bratskaya construction had begun by the time I finished school. Irkutsk Story, an Arbuzov’s play, and the Zeya play were in every theatre at the time. My father bought me a book: Zeya Multi-Purpose Hydro System, at the beginning of my tenth grade. That was my first book about energy and it gave me my first thought about being a power engineer. As a result, I entered Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU), Electrical Energy Department. My father, sister, and school friends studied there, but in other departments.

By the end of my university studies I applied for a job at the Amur Energy power grid. Coincidentally, one of the authors of the book about the Zeya hydro system was head of Amur Energy. He told me: “Find five more guys from your department and we will hire you.” I persuaded five good fellows of mine and in 1962 we moved to the Amur region. At first I worked in the Automatic Controls department, while they were developing a monitoring service. Then I worked on the monitoring service since I was going to work with automatic controls, engineering, and telematics. I worked for four years as a system operator. It was a great experience since I got not only technical but leadership background experience as well. Then I got an offer to move to the site of the coal industry of the Russian Far East located in Raychikhinsk. I occupied the position of the Technical Director of a power grid. For the next eight years I spent time two power grids. It was interesting and important work. Looking back, I can say that the job at the power grid gave me a lot of experience. I got more only at the Zeya Hydro Systems.

My thesis was about Tomi Hydro Systems in Kemerovo oblast’ and I had an internship at Irkutsk HPP. Thus, the Technical Director of Amur Energy knew that I was majoring in hydro energy and he asked me to consider a Zeya HPP project. Thus, I was appointed as a Technical Director of Amur Energy in the beginning of 1975. That year we launched Zeya HPP. We started the first aggregate of Zeya HPP on the 23rd of November at 2:05 p.m. local time. There was a live broadcast on the Vremya (Time) news show. Later on we started five more aggregates. We met all the deadlines set by the Government thanks to a strong professional team of Zeya HPP developers and other constructors from different corners of the USSR. Mr Alexey Shohin was a construction engineer officer. He got the Hero of Socialist Labour award. I think that he deserved it. Also, he was the hero of Pahmutova’s song – “My Friend Works at Zeya”. Mr. Vladimir Kon’ko was the Technical Director, experienced developer, and just a great man. I am proud to say that he was my friend despite the age gap. However, we had hot debates and discussions. It was useful experience for my future. My student dream came true: I was taking part in Zeya HPP construction. Afterwards I took part in the construction process of Kolymskaya, Bureyskaya, Viluyskaya III, and Ust’srednekanskaya HPPs. Unfortunately we could not start construction on Giluyskaya HPP on Zeya cascade and Dal’nerechenskaya HPP in Primorski Krai. If we had built the later one, we would have had a completely different situation now.

 

 – What was your position during construction of those HPPs?

 

I was the Technical Director of Amur Energy and then of Glavk. Glavk was under the leadership of real power engineer Mr. Ivan Kravchenko. I was in charge of the technical side and the launches. I worked at Glavk for eight years, while it existed. Working at Glavk, I spent half of the time in Moscow and the rest of the time at the operating power plants or developing ones. There was huge number of power plant construction: Anadyrkaya, Kamchatskaya II, Nerungrinskaya, Khabarovskaya III, Komsomol’skaya III, Nikolaevskaya na Amure, Blagoveshchenskaya, and Kharanorskaya. Moreover, we worked on extensions of the following power plants: Primorskaya, Artemovskaya, Vladivostokskaya, Yakutskaya, and Sakhalinskaya. Do not forget about the power transmission lines (PTL) 500-220 kilowatt from Baikal region to the East.

There was a 500 kilowatt PTL from Zeya HPP to my hometown Svobodny. That was my first PTL project and I was really excited about that. Later we were constructing a PTL from Svobodny to Khabarovsk, to Primor’e and all over Primorski Krai. At the time I worked at Glavk. We had PTL projects along the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) and the Trans-Siberian railway. Then we headed toward Tynda and Nerungri in Yakutia. We started in South Yakutia and headed to the central part of the region. In this way we created a united power network of the Russian Far East. It was a program designed by the aforementioned Mr. Kravchenko, my fellow countryman.

 

– Was it working on the wear?

 

It is now. It used to be easier. I liked everything. That is the main point. Moreover, our boss Mr. Kravchenko, managed to find great people. There was a really strong team at Glavk. There were 48 people for everything: construction, operation, etc. on such a huge territory.

Mr. Kravchenko graduated from the Energy department of TPU in 1942, 20 years earlier than I did. He took charge of Glavk in 1967 and before that he had built the Belovskaya regional power station (RPS) in Kemerovskaya oblast’ – being its director. That was the best one in the USSR at that time. Mr. Kravchenko created what we now call the energy system of the Russian Far East in Baikal region, in the East, and in the North, from Lake Baikal to Alaska, to Japan. That is a great example of a very comprehensive plan and its execution.

There was no whole united energy system in the Russian Far East before. There were only some separate power plants and no centralised system. South of Primorye was the only exception. For example, Raichikhinskaya RPS, located next to Raichikhinski coal deposits, was the major one in Amur oblast’. All the rest were small power plants not far from gold works and there were a lot of 4 MW power trains fuelled by coal along Trans-Siberian railway (TransSib). Partizanskaya and Artemovskaya RPS were constructed as the energy departments of Primorye coal factory. Later developing industries of the region joined the RPS. There was a power plant named Rozhdenie in Khabarovsk and built in 1951 and a range of small power plants, sometimes for some industries. There was only one big 220 kilowatt PTL and 261.5 km long. That PTL was on wood frames from Raichikhinskaya RPS to the North. Construction of Zeya HPP was supported by that one. Can you imagine this? Wooden frames are smashed down when it thunders. 

 

Mr. Kravchenko proposed to unite energy systems of the Russian Far East and implemented it via his projects thanks to his commitment to the job and his ability to get help from the Ministry, Gosplan, and at the Government. He wrote Government resolutions by himself, when it was necessary. He did a huge amount of work. The plan of the united energy system of the Russian Far East was comprehensive. It united PTL, energy generation, department of operations, and maintenance services. Institute departments were established specially for that. Later on those departments became independent agencies.

Productive relationships with local authorities were established. Local secretary generals were quite independent in those days. Remember that like in a movie, Dubrovski was a phrase: “God is too high from here and the Tzat is too far to hear”. We have the same here. All those local authorities had leaders. Mr. Lomakin in Primorye, Mr. Cherniv in Khabarovsk, and Mr. Avramenko in Blagoveshchensk. Strong men were in Yakutiya and Magadan as well. They knew that there was no way without the energy industry. Mr. Kravchenko was the one who enlightened them. He explained, negotiated, and convinced. It was impossible to do anything without those local leaders. We would not have construction departments, installation organizations, and even people without their assistance. Everything was done simultaneously: design was synchronised with execution.

HR was the biggest challenge for us. We did not have mid-tier managers like craftsmen, construction site supervisors, technical engineers for new plants, etc. It is impossible to do anything even if there were a million workers. Even if there are good top managers, we cannot do anything without mid-tier specialists.

Workers in the energy industry and on the construction sites are very special. Some people think: “What are the power transmission lines? This is just wooden frames and wires”. However, specialists should install wires. At first I was surprised how they manage to erect the poles on rubble hills, because it is hard just to climb there. Those hills crumble all the time.

We were building a 220 kilowatt PTL 400 km long from Komsomolsk to Khabarovsk for nine months. Next year we installed the Komsomolsk 500 kW PTL and again it took just nine months. We used a lot of column convoys and helicopters. Swamps were everywhere; there are no towns over there. We had a mixed team, but still every step was organized. It was a true achievement. We managed to develop everything for nine months in such severe conditions. Nine months for each of two PTLs. 

When we were building PTL along BAM, there were hundreds of kilometres without any single person. For instance, PTL from the Trans-Siberian mainline (Skovorodino) to Tynda was 186 km along the hillside. Six column convoys managed to do it in a little bit less than a year. This is all real achievement.

There have been no great large scale projects in a country for the last twenty years, other than the Bureiskaya HPP. However, we were those people who began to develop that HPP. We reached a stage of floor structure and main installation. We had begun the concrete placing, but then funding was cut off.

 

– Do you think such projects are possible nowadays?

 

 To make something real like that is really hard. The energy system was separated into production, transmission, and distribution. It takes away the ground for such complex projects. Who will unite this? The Ministry does not have such authority and capacity. However, it is possible to develop an energy industry only in a complex way. It is impossible to fix all the problems by just a PTL development. I have my own opinion concerning the separation of the industry. I believe it was a wrong step, because from the very beginning our energy industry was the whole system of PTL and energy generation systems. Do you want to do business in energy industry? Then, take energy system like JSC Dalenergo with all the PTL and energy production, and make money. If you have extra energy, then sell it, if you don’t, then buy it. But you are going to be responsible for energy development at the regional level.

It is a little bit abstract, but I am sure it is the right way to act.

 

– This is the way to develop regions...

 

Sure, because it is impossible to do one thing without another one. In fact, the task to develop the region was an initial one. Today we have reached the stage where there is no one in charge of regional development.

 

– Are there any other reasons why such projects are impossible nowadays?

 

It is really hard to implement projects of such a scale until we get teams of constructors and mid-tier managers. It is impossible to control everyone. People must be responsible, smart and independent. They should be able to supervise blue collar workers. I think HR issues are the most important ones from the development point of view. The same problem lies with operations, because new technologies get installed. What do we have? Educational institutions are the first stage of the problem. We used to have three great institutes, which were responsible for strategic development. They designed projects and worked on ideology. In my opinion there is only about 30% of old school power nowadays. 

It takes the right approach to work with people. I remember, when in the early nineties there was a complicated problem. We came to a powerhouse and we saw that circumstances were hard. The Technical Director held a meeting with department heads and it was 10 p.m. He says: “If we don’t do it, then it is going to be a failure”. And I said to him: “Wait. Can you set a task in this way? You should say something like we should do it altogether and everything will be great!” You should talk to people in this way. They are guided by their heads, not by emotions. It is quite the opposite with workers.

I do remember how I got a good lesson from Mr. Kravchenko. He promoted me to the position of the Technical Director, when I was 34. It was something really rare when the technical director of a fast growing system was that young. So, every Thursday I was reporting about new launches and other things to Mr Kravchencko. And I told him: “I have to go to Moscow to find a new head of the relay controlled department.” Kravchenko asks me “You can’t find anyone here?” I answered: “I can, but all of them are young”. He said: “I didn’t expect it from you. I was not afraid to appoint you as Technical Director at the age of 34, but you are afraid to appoint a young professional as a department head, bearing in mind that you yourself supervise this department”. It was in 1976, but I still remember the lesson. We should work with the young people and develop them, but they should feel responsibility from the very beginning as well. When you are next to a more experienced colleague you can learn a lot from him. No one else can teach you like the one who has gone through everything.

 

– How did you manage to find personnel, when there was lack of people?

 

We hired people from the moment of the launch, but before that they had had the preparation process at the other power plants. So, future staff had internships at the already operating power stations, mostly in Siberia. As a result we got qualified professionals. They were ready to work on their own. So, by the time of the launch of a power plant, we already had team of professionals. They accepted the equipment. Every segment of the station was checked in a very serious way.

The Technical Director and the Director are another story. They were appointed at the design process. Thus, a developing power plant already had the Director and the Technical Director. Later, one examined a project, trained personnel, and established an operating process. All of that was done beforehand and in a synchronised way.

Many of the guys, prepared by us, moved to new projects in the European part of Russia. They were trained, rugged and experienced.

That was everywhere in the country with local adjustments. 

 

– You keep talking about mid-tier professionals. What is their skill-set? Are there any changes with the course of time?

 

Today the tools for energy management have gone through serious changes. Many years ago when I began to work as a power system operator, I had a schematic diagram, a frequency meter, and at least one light bulb. Perfect knowledge of a schematic diagram, a frequency meter and behaviour of a light bulb helped to assume what is going on inside the power system. Gradual experience gaining and senior fellows taught us how to succeed. I might exaggerate, but compared to a modern “toolkit”, I do not exaggerate a lot.

We had to make decisions fast and remember some expertise that was deep inside. Machines cannot fully substitute for knowledge, preparation and experience. These things help you to think fast.

I clearly remember an incident. I was getting ready to take a shift, when the light slowly went down. I and my colleagues did not even have to think it over. Everything was clear to us: Raichikhinskaya power plant had failed. There was a PTL from that power plant to Blagoveshchensk. This is the way how the switch turns down a network voltage. So, we were turning on the station from the very beginning. It was epic! We made it!

 

– Ability to think fast and make decisions can be developed during training?

 

Not only does a lot depend on one person. I had a system operator. From 2 am to 4 am is the time when you want to sleep the most during night shifts. I called him to check. I asked him questions and he couldn’t answer. I called him again in a day and asked another question, which he could not answer again. So, the person cannot get to the point fast. Thus, he had to go, but it does not mean that he was a bad professional. He just did not have the right mix of ability to think fast and make decisions. Afterwards he got another position and still was one of us.

On the other hand I was learning from really gifted people. I worked four years as a senior operator with an energy degree from university. Then I moved to Vostochni Seti (Eastern Lines) on the first of February in 1967. So, there were only a few people: the Director, me, a protection engineer, my spouse (she was a protection engineer as well) and a head of the technical department. All the rest were either technicians or skilled workers. But what a wonderful workers they were! Ivan Khudyakov was one of them. He was the head of the energy laboratory. He graduated from night tech school and later on he taught there. However, he knew everything about his job. The Director was often sick after he had a heart attack. So, often I was alone and had to be in charge of everything. That was hard times. So, I appointed Ivan as the Vice Director breaking all the rules. I took the rap for that. Later, Ivan became a Technical Director in another place. Then he was sent to the North, Zeya. He was the Director of Severny Seti (Northern Lines). So, we had really talented people. I learnt a lot from them and you cannot learn it at school. You can learn it only through communication and thanks to the desire to learn something new.

 

– You are talking about people with natural gifts. Where do they come from? Do you need a special environment to create such people?

 

Life was hard back then, so they appeared. Now it is different. You can make easy money, without expertise. However, if there is a mix of what you like, what you do and if it brings you money, then it is the best possible combination, especially for chief engineers. Moreover, a lucky turn of events should take place: time, age, and people around you.

 

– Is there any difference between people in Siberia and in Moscow?

 

Life is different in Siberia and in the Russian Far East: there are not many people and severe conditions. That is why people depend on each other more than here. Unconsciously it has an impact on relations. We can’t say that people are good there, and that they are bad here. That is not the point, but human relations are better over there. I lived in Moscow for 32 years and I can say it. Let’s consider the following example: there is the Alumni Network of TPU in Moscow, which has existed for more than thirty years. About 700 members are on the list and many of them are either former or current leaders of different industries. Why? Is there lack of universities in Moscow?

 

– What are the tough decisions you had to make being a Technical Director?

 

We had a lot of complicated cases. I do not even know what to tell you about. For example, the Zeya HPP case. On the one hand we should have extra water supplies or else we faced an energy shortage in winter. You understand the possible consequences of that, bearing in mind the severe conditions of the Russian winter. I do not need to explain it to you. If we decrease the amount of water stock, then the water level falls below the site level. However, this is a navigable river and that is bad for a ship channel. Here we have a dilemma: on the one hand we have to have sufficient water stock, but at the same time there is Northern cargo carriage. High level officials start to panic and to write letters of complaint to Moscow. Fortunately, the First Secretary, Mr Avramenko, understood that without electricity it is impossible to survive the winter. That is why he soft-pedalled everything.  

We had to make a decision anyway and we found a way out. We proposed to get all the ships together and let them go. We said let’s make a fleet. They were not used to it but they agreed. Everything went well. So, we satisfied river officials and managed to stock some water. Later we established conditions for long term cooperation.

We made such decisions jointly, but we needed a leader. Kravchenko as the head of Glavk defended our position in Moscow and he told us: “Guys, stock the water. I will take care of the Ministry. Defend yourself at local level. I will cover you here. Do not worry about it”.

In another case we had to replace wooden poles with concrete ones. Amur oblast’ is an agricultural region. Soy beans grow everywhere over there. So, PTL are along the fields. This is the 220 PTL I was talking about before. Soy beans are the major source of revenue for the region. Thus, we had only two days to replace the poles in April before soy seeding, when the snow had not yet melted. And we had two days in the end of October, after harvesting, but fields are not fully frozen, and there is not much pressure on the PTL. We turned it off on Friday at 10 p.m. and turned it on again on Monday at 5 a.m. We had to complete the mission in this time frame. We had to establish three outlets. I was the Technical Engineer of the central one and two my fellows were in charge of the Northern one and the Eastern one. There was a lot of equipment: man lifts, cranes, drilling machines. The job was tough. There were twenty teams working 200 km from each other. Hundreds of people worked with no sleep. 

When we were about to finish and to apply tension, we had to make sure that there is no one in the field. It is a heavy responsibility. You have to make a decision from a distance. It is a special feature of the decision making process if you are a head of the PTL. That is, your decisions will be implemented 300 km away from you, but you cannot see what is going on there. The Technical Director of a power plant can put on a boiler suit and boots, and jump into the boiler, and then make a decision. But what about removed distanced PTL or electric substations? You have to get credible information, make a decision, and to telephone a message. Those decisions are the toughest ones. First, you have to be sure of the data credibility transmitted by the operator. Thus, you have to teach him and trust him. Second, you got to know the matter and make sure that everybody understands you. Staff did the right things and reported on the execution. I call it work over the field. An operator and a PTL guy make a distant decision, and they are not present in the field, and cannot see the details.

I was flying around the 220 kW and 500 kW PTL, working at Amur Energy. I mean it: I took a two-seat helicopter, so I could fly just above the wires and poles. Therefore, I knew everything; especially I knew every little thing about hard-to-reach-regions. It is not because of the lack of trust, but to be able to make right decisions fast. 

 

– Decision making processes you are talking about: is there some decision making school?

 

Yes, it is. This school is based on the communication with senior colleagues or more experienced ones. You should not think that you are smarter than the others, but you should have self-confidence as well. A person can be younger, but still he can understand some things deeply. However, you start to understand these things through communication. You do not learn it from books or at university.

 

– Let’s talk about the current state of things in the Russian Far East. What are the necessary steps to make a difference there?

 

We still have experienced professionals and former industry leaders who created what we have now. However, no one needs our expertise in the Russian Far East. They publish the program of the Russian Far East Development and I get it through the third parties. However, I took part in the preparation process of the two previous programs. Other people might not to know that we exist, completely different people work there now. It is impossible to write the program, especially on the energy system development, not knowing the history of the origins. The basic law of philosophy says that new things grow from the old ones. If you do not know the history, then you cannot make it right.

 

– Therefore, we have to recover an expert environment, don’t we?

 

Sure. We have to restore it until we are alive and able to work. It is real, but we need political will. However, we do not see it.

 

– Should the will come from above?

 

We cannot make it from below. How we can make it from below, if we need the solution to a question and billions of rubbles!

Let me tell you more about development of the energy industry.

Nowadays they say a lot about distributed generation, co-generation, smart grids, etc. I knew about co-generation 55 years ago. Two thirds of the energy industry is connected with electricity production and heat power. What is the distributed generation? It means small scale power generation. However, we cannot get small energy, until we put it on a map. We used to build great power plants. Young people were taking part in the biggest projects in the world. There was a special attitude. Attitude is so important, and we cannot forget about it. That attitude produced results: we were constructing great projects. Nobody cared about small scale projects. What do we have now? Too much talking and no serious projects, there is not even a small new power plant. Then we realize that we need equipment. Nowadays we do not produce a lot from the list e. g.: small boilers, turbines, electric generators, etc. Even if we produce it, then the quantity is not sufficient to meet the needs of development strategy. We need foreign equipment?!

Here we need businessmen, who are interested in these projects. But it is not a one day thing. Anyway, there is no way to start it without the state participation.

 

– There is an idea to unite China and Siberia via a power bridge and then connect it with Europe...

 

We need to think it over. We have more real problems that are tangible. For example, we need to finish a half built Yakutsk PTL. In fact, there is only one power plant that provides the city with electricity and heat. My late friend built it using turbine-powered equipment. Another urgent object is the generation facilities in Primorye.

China is another story. All my life I lived on the border with China. The first PTL from Blagoveshchensk including the very beautiful transition over Amur toward China was built during my job at the Russian Far East. I was really curious about that, because I was dreaming about how I go there. I got there to start the PTL and saw Blagoveshchensk from another side. Since then I have not had those dreams anymore. There are 800 metres between us: we have the same plants like bachelor’s button growing next to a pole, but people are different, life is different there. I was shocked.

Chinese people do not do anything in vain and to the prejudice of themselves. They are very good at negotiations. They are the best traders in the world. They conduct very wise policy. So, all these talks that we are going to export something to China... We should think it over, take a risk, see the consequences, but it is too early to count on it.

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