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Wednesday, March 3, 2004


Hailey firm reviving Iraq’s electricity

Power Engineers bags restoration contract

Express Staff Writer

Joining the ranks of Halliburton and Bechtel, Hailey-based Power Engineers is a recipient of U. S. government contracts for infrastructure improvements in Iraq, following the second Gulf War.

Power Engineers engineering consultant Rob Reihl inspects an electrical tower in southern Iraq pulled down by looters after the Iraq War. It was one of more than 200 towers toppled for the value of the wire by looters using cables and tractors. Courtesy photo

Power Engineers is serving as a subcontractor to Perini Corporation, a century old civil infrastructure contractor. Tapping into the source of work has helped Power Engineers pull out of the doldrums of the post Sept. 11, 2001, economy, company officers said.

Awarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Transatlantic Programs Center, the Perini work is called an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract for design and construction work throughout the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility (CENTCOM-AOR), which includes 25 countries that include Iraq and Afghanistan.

Power Engineers and Perini are currently involved in a contract called CENTCOM I that is expected to be completed in September, said Ed Greco, Perini design coordinator for Iraq projects.

"We’re providing on–site engineering support and expertise," said Les Hinzman, a Power Engineers project engineer. He recently returned from Iraq after spending two months supporting Perini as the company began to refurbish a 250-mile long string of electrical towers. "The big government contractors are not design experts like we are."

Power Engineers project engineer Les Hinzman poses at the Kuwaiti and Iraqi boarder in southern Iraq on his way to work designing repairs to 250 miles of sabotaged electrical towers. Courtesy photo

"Our role has been to provide engineering support for repairing the existing power system," said Power Engineering Vice President and Manager of Transmission and Distribution Bill Eisinger. "There was a lot of damage from the war and subsequent sabotage. We have thousands of photographs."

Hinzman, who took some of the pictures, said people were pulling the towers down with cables and tractors to salvage the wire from the power lines.

"When I got in country, 130 towers had been torn down," he said. "By the time I left 280 were down."

Many of the towers that once stood 100 to 120 feet high look like the wreckage of a Star Wars or Lord of the Rings film shot after an epic battle scene.

Power transmission and distribution design work has been the bread and butter of the employee-owned company started in 1976. That branch of the business is about 60 percent of the $100 million company’s gross revenue.

Today, the company has 12 offices in the United States, with two in Idaho and the latest that has just opened in Maine. There are two international bases, one in the United Kingdom and one in Buenos Aires.

Power Engineers has done some work on electrical systems for U.S. military bases, but the firm is fairly new to government contracts, said company president Jack Hand. It hired a Washington, D.C., insider two years ago to facilitate an entrance into the marketplace of government contracts. Hand said the work is not necessarily difficult but requires a lot of paperwork.

"It is hard to pin work down," Hand said. "Our reputation gets us high on the list. When (our engineers are) busy we do well."

Over the years Power Engineers branched out into the telecom and power generation fields. Less diverse engineering companies weren’t able to withstand recent economic downturns.

For example, the bankruptcies of companies like Enron, Worldcom and MCI and the collapse of their respective industries caused less diverse engineering companies to go under when work dried up.

Power Engineers has 600 employees, but has not had to lay off many permanent staff. Hand said as the economy picks up, the telecom and energy production branches of the business are taking off again.

"We struggled for two years, but we are still in business. Our diversity saved us," Hand said. "I tell people 2003 was our worst year in the last five or six, but it was still better than the first 20 years."

Power Engineers is the largest power transmission and distribution design company in the country, according to Engineering News Record.

The current contract will be followed by a second IDIQ contract called CENTCOM II that has recently been approved. It could bring Perini as much as $1.5 billion.

"Under CENTCOM II we don’t know where were going yet," Greco said. "We still have a lot of work under CENTCOM I."

Greco expects that most of CENTCOM II will continue to involve Iraqi reconstruction and Power Engineers will be included by Perini.

"They are doing an excellent job for us," he said.

So far, about a dozen Power Engineers have traveled to Iraq. Meanwhile, support staff at home in Hailey and several other offices work through the Iraqi night to solve problems from the previous day.

"The time change gives us a real advantage back in Hailey," Hinzman said. "We work while they sleep. It shows the true advantage of the Internet. We can provide drawings and information electronically."

The CENTCOM work is only about 3 to 4 percent of the company’s current scope of projects. Nevertheless, it comprises half of the 30 percent quarterly jump in revenue Power Engineers experienced from the first quarter for fiscal year 2002 to the first quarter in 2003.

Companies like Power Engineers are hired to fill niches of expertise, but the organizational muscle of the U.S. military puts the package together, Hand said.

"U.S. Central Command has thrown its administrative force at reconstruction," Hand said. "There are weekly conference calls with (generals in charge of the projects)."

Filled with media images and news about post war Iraq, Hinzman said the first day in country was the hardest. But, as he got his feet on the ground and his security was ensured, the two months he spent providing consulting services went well.

One of the provisions of the CENTCOM contracts is that contractors like Perini hire Iraqis.

"The local sheik is like the employment agency," Hinzman said. "We’re contractors, per se, in Iraq for the ministry of electricity. If power lines are being built, (Iraqis) would build them.

"The contractors bring Iraqis out, give them training, steel toed boots and hard hats," he said. "It was pretty interesting. Our security group hired a lot of Iraqis. The British-based firm would hire Iraqi drivers, who would come with their own car to help us blend into the local population."

Hinzman said he believes one of the reasons seven Spanish intelligence officers were killed in an ambush in central Bagdad last year is because they were travelling in new vehicles mistaken for coalition forces.

Power Engineers staff travels with a lower profile in Iraq. It is part of their security protocol. They also have a curfew that gets them in their hotels by nightfall.

"We never went out at night. When we go out, we never have less than two security vehicles with us," he said. There is a driver and a lead car with an armed shooter in the backseat, he said. "They all carried AK47s and pistols."

Part of the security detail included clearing the way of any unexploded ordnance when the engineers were travelling to the power lines they were charged with repairing.

"I saw plenty of ordnance laying around," he said. "There is a lot of stuff that just doesn’t explode (during combat)."

Some of the shells and rocket-propelled grenades were left over from the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war, Hinsman said. "I think these big contractors bring a lot to the table the way they organize and mobilize quickly. We were working long hours. It was very professional."

Hinsman did get some good windshield photographs, including a string of camels that stretched for over a mile down the highway.

"Some of what I saw was right out of the Bible," he said.

"It’s an eye opener. There is a lot of looting. It kind of surprised me when I got there. They just live so much differently than we do.

"I haven’t complained about anything since I got home. We have so much control over our lives, our security. I was actually pretty hopeful for the Iraqi people when I left. They are industrious and hard working. They’ve got that particular resource, oil. It seems to me you go back in ten years and its going to be an unbelievable place."



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