The Gulf Interconnection Grid seen from a contractor perspective.
The GCC Interconnection grid is the most significant transmission and distribution projects the region has ever witnessed. Thomas Hellenas, project manager at ABB, recalls the challenges his company had to overcome while contracted for project's crucial Phase I.
The Gulf Interconnection Grid is one of the most important transnational infrastructure projects to have been undertaken in the Middle East for some time. Once completed, the grid will help prevent power outages, pave the way for a regional energy market and even open up the prospect of linking up with North Africa and Europe.
Phase I of the new grid went online in 2009. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait are now linked up. The UAE and Oman will be fully connected to the rest by 2011.The project is being developed under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council Interconnection Authority (GCCIA).
One of the largest contracts in this mega-project was awarded to ABB. The company was charged with delivering six transmission substations equipped with gas-insulated switchgear (GIS) – three in Saudi Arabia and one each in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar - enabling power to be delivered reliably and safely at 400kV to the power systems of all four countries.
Enclosed GIS substations are among the most suitable solutions for the harsh desert climate of the Arabian Peninsula, says ABB.
GIS is compact and robust, as the full metal encapsulation and indoor installation protects it from atmospheric influence and enables it to better withstand adverse conditions. GIS also contribute to the saving of resources through their space efficiency and low maintenance needs, according to ABB.
“Towards the end of the 1960s, they became a common technology in harsh environments such as the Middle East, with the desert and the heat,” says Hellenas. “Sandstorms combined with salt is very difficult for conventional substations, therefore indoor ones were developed.”
To stabilise the voltage of the 400 kV cable between Saudi Arabia and the island of Bahrain, ABB also provided 17 shunt reactors.
Two of these reactors are rated at 300 MVAr and are among the most powerful three-phase reactors ever made. The company also supplied three power transformers, each rated at 650 MVA as well as all necessary auxiliary equipment, surge arrestors and 220 kV high voltage cables.
As part of the turnkey project, ABB was also responsible for the comprehensive design, manufacturing, installation, commissioning and civil works.
Hellenas feels that the compmany was well equipped for the task. ABB can draw on extensive experience in the field of gas insulated switchgear and shunt reactors, having so far installed more than 10,000 high-voltage bays and over 1,000 reactors worldwide.
One of the challenges the company was confronted with was a lack of construction materials in the region due to the prevailing construction boom. “As we were contracted for a turnkey job, we were responsible for every step from base design to handing over the stations,” says Hellenas.
“At the time, there was an extreme boom in the construction industry, and thus a lack of steel and concrete in most of the countries, especially in Qatar and Bahrain.
So instead of buying these materials locally as we usually do, we had to ship and import them, mainly from Saudi Arabia. To import materials without special custom duties, we needed special permits, which we acquired with the help of the utilities in each country.”
In Qatar, there was also a shortage of suitable civil contractors. A consortium was formed with civil contractors in Bahrain and Qatar to overcome this challenge.
Another challenge was posed by the site and the road conditions. Unstable ground in Kuwait where the seawater was only half a meter below the surface required the entire site to be drained with pumps before any construction work could be started.
In addition, several roads had to be widened and reinforced to permit the transportation of large transformers and reactors, each weighing several hundred tons. The truck transport of such bulky equipment is usually escorted and done during the night to minimize impact on normal traffic.
Road barriers and ramps also had to be modified and constructed at times to facilitate transportation.
One of the biggest obstacles had to be overcome even before construction began, as GCC countries worked with varying electricity specifications.
“What was unique about this project was that we were tasked with implementing one and the same specification for all the four countries we were installing substations in.
We followed the GCCIA specifications, which was the same for all four countries, but which were slightly different from the specifications of the utilities in each of these countries. For example the electricity frequency in Saudi is 60Hz, whilst in the rest of the region it is 50Hz.”
The GCC Interconnection Grid explained
Upon completion in 2011, this mega-sized pooling of electricity resources will interconnect the power grids of the six Gulf states – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – and enable them to use their electricity resources more effectively.
Due to the grid expansion on the 400 kV level in the Gulf region, a sustainable reduction of transmission losses can be achieved.
The development of the grid on this high voltage level also enables the balancing of power supply between the major Gulf countries since power can be exchanged, allowing national power generation resources to be used more efficiently.
The sharing of spinning reserves leads to the increased stability of the power system and helps mitigate interruptions and black-outs, its planners hope.
The interconnection will also enable the six states to establish an energy trading market and facilitate the cooperation between them. In the long term, it could also open up prospects of linking up with Europe and North Africa to form a ring of interconnected power grids around the Mediterranean.