Coal, Gas, Renewables

Re-balancing the global energy approach: Interview with Mario Azar, president of Black & Veatch Power

(Click here to read a timeline of Black & Veatch history)

Coming from a conventional energy world doesn’t impede Mario Azar one bit when it comes to embracing a world of breathtaking technological change.

In fact, the relatively new president of Black & Veatch’s power business was quick to lead the Overland Park, Kansas-based engineering firm, 104 years old and going strong, into a restructuring announced this summer. Black & Veatch is planning big moves into renewables and in Asia.

Azar, who took charge of the division last December after a career with Siemens and Westinghouse, doesn’t see it as a complete disruption to  Black & Veatch Power’s business model of offering EPC services for major projects. He called it a balancing act that was due.

“It’s recognizing that the power industry has changed,” he said in a recent interview with Power Engineering. “It’s recognizing that conventionals are only one part of the mix. Renewables are extremely important and growing faster than conventionals.”

All of this is certainly true and yet extremely more complicated than growth trends can convey with percentages and forecasts. A new generation of energy projects are going up and planned all over the world, including every type of energy resource one can imagine—solar, wind, energy storage, microgrids, gas-fired turbines and, yes, even coal-fired steam power.

Major companies ignore the rise of renewables at their own peril. California–the world’s fifth biggest economy–has a state-mandated edict to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045. And, regardless of what happens in the U.S. politically over the coming years, many utilities are already planning shifts to reduce carbon emissions and embrace utility-scale and distributed solar, onshore and offshore wind and energy storage. The economics are there to make wind and solar competitive with every other resource now.

Many pundits have predicted that this increasingly diffused, distributed energy landscape will lay waste to the power utility as we know it. Perhaps, but Azar doesn’t believe it has to be that way.

“It could be a threat; it could be an opportunity,” he said. “Once they figure out how to make the interconnectivity function property going two ways, supplying and taking in power, and have the logic to handle that properly….I think they need to be part of it, rather than worry about the threat.”

Black & Veatch has worked with utilities on major projects since Woodrow Wilson was president. Nuclear, coal-fired, gas-fired and utility-scale wind, the company has done it all and plans to keep doing so.

Azar said his business unit is shifting more toward solar, microgrids and distributed energy in general. Black & Veatch designed the microgrid at oil giant Shell’s Technology Center in Houston, combining solar, on-site a natural gas generator and battery storage.

“Not only is Shell looking at power its own facilities, Shell is really looking re-inventing itself to be a power producer,” he noted.

Indeed, energy storage is the arena where Azar sees the biggest potential for advancement in a distributed, yet connected grid.  They can help renewables such as wind and solar behave more like baseload power, steady and reliable.

“A lot of that comes down to whether there is going to be an alternative baseload power, where batteries could really make the difference,” Azar said. “We believe this is coming.”

Azar’s career includes leadership stints at Siemens and Westinghouse. He’s been a traditional power guy through and through, and while he embraces the renewables shift—including having tremendous faith in the future of offshore wind and battery storage–by no means will he nor Black & Veatch abandon pursuit of conventional projects in the developing world.

“We see it as an elemental part of the whole mix,” he added. In the U.S., UK and western Europe, “we have the luxury if we want to get away from any source that generates carbon…We should not forget that some economies and countries don’t have that luxury. They still need to expand baseload power to underserved communities and industries.”

Black & Veatch is tuned into the entire global energy puzzle, Azar pointed out. And, ultimately, the key to being successful globally is to be present locally.

“You can maintain an identify identity as a company but you have to operate there, having people able to get things done in that time zone, not waiting for us to wake up and make decisions.”

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Azar will be part of an all-star leadership panel presenting in a megasession at POWERGEN International this November. Stay tuned for more details.