The Last Mile problem (not to be confused with the Three-Body Problem, but possibly as hard to solve) is the struggle that transport planners have in getting commuters to use public transport if they have to walk the first or last stretch. Transport infrastructure may be fantastic for the most part, but if a passenger needs to walk for twenty minutes after hopping off their train, they may look to take a car instead.
Bicycles make a lot of sense, as they can chew up the distance from the station to home or the office, but they are mostly cumbersome to have on the train, especially during rush hour. In Melbourne, I’d often get passed by people on skateboards while walking from Flinders Street station to the South Bank. This is not a bad option, as skateboards can be popped onto the back of a backpack and carry pretty well, but they’re not for everyone. The few times in my life that I’ve been on a skateboard I’ve feared for my knees, elbows and life.
So this weekend, my little family tried out the Lime scooters which are being rolled out (pun intended) in Brisbane. These surprisingly tall and heavy electric scooters are found scattered around the CBD, and along the side of the river.
They cost AUD1 to unlock, then AUD0.30 per minute to ride. We had a fun time up and down the river’s edge, dropping a smooth AUD11 for our little half hour adventure. You download the app, locate a nearby scooter and scan its QR code. Then it’s unlocked and you can take it for a ride. The app will show how much distance is left in the scooter’s battery.
It’s hard to say how many scooters are dotted around Brisbane, but the app shows that they are fairly ubiquitous in the CBD. And people are using them. Everywhere you walk people pass you on them. They are quiet, very quick and easily accessible.
One of the problems with bike rentals is finding a drop off point, which can make them inconvenient. When you’re finished with the scooters you just tap out, and leave them on the side of the road. Ready for the next eager scooterer to hop on.
And when they start getting low on juice?
“Our Lime-S electric scooters are monitored remotely by both local staff and an independent team of Lime Juicers. When a scooter is running low on power, our Juicers will pick it up, charge the battery and then redeploy the Lime-S out in the community.” – Lime
Many of the scooters have helmets hanging off of them, but there are many people cruising around without one. My conscientious husband asked a passing policeman if they were mandatory (apparently they are). It was also pointed out that only one person was allowed on at a time. Pictures below reflect compliance…
Our son enjoyed it and I was surprised at the oomph provided by the little motor. A great overall experience.
Throughout my career I have encountered strong and vibrant women. It has been a pattern in my working life to be in a team which is led, either formally or informally, by a woman of absolute substance. And I am not sure what working life would be like without it. I recently moved from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast, and with this change of office I leave an extremely high-functioning team. It has been established and led by Heidi Sick, the Section Executive for WSP’s Power team in Victoria, and the market lead for renewable energy across Australia. On top of my move, I am now on maternity leave and I find myself in a good place to reflect on my career to date, and my aspirations going forward. I thought a good way to approach this reflection would be to talk with some of these women who inspire, who create and who lead. I met with Heidi while down in Melbourne in March. While the discussion below outlines our quick half hour chat, there is so much more that can be said about this woman, who has been so supportive over the last two years, and who has been an incredibly valuable sounding board and personal champion.
Putting a team together
When Heidi started in her current role, in 2009, the team structure and mandate was very different. After a couple of years, she moved into a team management role, her first people management role with direct reports. Hers was a team of six, two of whom were women. She had no power generation background, but the person who interviewed her saw leadership qualities in Heidi and she was appointed to the role.
“I had no idea what I was doing, no idea what to do. I decided to focus on what the team can do, their capabilities, strengths, interests and passion, and to support them and make sure that they were fully engaged. I then had to get up to speed with understanding the market and the sector, build client relationships and focus on business development. I realised that if I didn’t have strong relationships with my team then they would leave. After a couple of years I went on maternity leave and came back to manage a larger team with different capabilities, which included wind engineering and networks.
Before I went on maternity leave I was fully billable, focusing on project delivery as my team was relatively small with limited management burden. Looking back my role felt more like an administration/management role rather than leadership. When I returned from maternity leave, due to a restructure I had a larger team with two additional capabilities to manage. I recognised there was no way that I could be an expert in all of these areas and I needed to rely on my team’s technical skills and expertise, and so a collective leadership style started to emerge. I asked a lot of questions, practised active listening and focused on understanding what they needed and how we could develop and grow each capability further. I used this intel to inform strategy and made key decisions to help shape the future of our team. Reflecting back, it was a collective leadership style, but without me realising it. It is interesting to me now, because the Women on Boards Next Generation of Female Leaders Program describes the leadership style of the future as being about collective leadership, where you draw out the strengths of everyone in the team. Because as a leader there is no way you can know everything.”
A pause here for some quick stats about Heidi’s team. There are nearly 30 people on board now, and women make up about 37%. What was interesting to me working in that team is that Heidi is the head of the entire team, with three managers under her, focusing on different renewable streams of work. And two of these three managers are women. Quite a few of the senior engineers are also women. So the 37% stat is impressive on its on, but it stands out even more when you know that the women on the team are leaders in their own right.
I asked her if diversity was a conscious decision. “50/50. Gender diversity is getting harder to maintain as the team grows. For graduate roles, I was focused on finding women to apply for roles in the earlier career stages. Whereas for the more senior roles it’s more about who is available, particularly in such a buoyant industry. Obviously in the current market there aren’t that many people available, however I was fortunate to come across some really competent and talented women. Once we interviewed a strong female candidate, and my colleague was concerned that she was too quiet and did not sell herself. However, I had no doubts that she would be amazing, which was exactly the case. It’s about understanding how women portray themselves and knowing that most of us have problems in promoting ourselves and really putting ourselves out there, particularly in an interview situation.”
So has being a female leader had an impact on the gender diversity of the team? Having this kind of insight in an interview must have an impact.
“Absolutely – women attract women. Some of my female team members moved across because of a female leader. One of my engineers could see I was working full time, with a family and juggling it all. She could trust that I was living it.”
I can vouch for this myself. Heidi has two amazing and beautiful boys, two years apart, at pre-school and primary school level. When I was interviewing for my role, I hadn’t worked in over a year. I didn’t have any care lined up for my son, because I wasn’t expecting to start working, and I wasn’t sure what I was looking for in the next few months. The idea of putting my son into care was intimidating. But during the interview process I really believed that Heidi understood my situation, was committed to ensuring I had flexibility in my work, and supported me in limiting my work to three days a week. I don’t think I would have been so willing to start working just then if I didn’t have this sense of flexibility, empathy and support.
So what traits do motherhood give a working woman?
“I think about the person I was before I had kids. I was really selfish. As soon as I had my children, I became much more open, caring and selfless and had a lot more empathy. It gave me a much better understanding of what other people in my team were going through. From morning sickness to failed IVF treatments, from fear of leaving work to fear of returning to work, fathers taking paternity leave and then balancing part time work. Looking back I feel grateful that they all were able to confide in me. Having already gone through it I knew what I needed to do, to empathise and support however I could.
For me, motherhood has helped me to prioritise what’s important at work, what needs to be done before leaving at the end of the day.
“Unfortunately I haven’t been as strict on that front as with consulting there’s often inflexible deadlines. After having children there is a greater sense of urgency and being efficient with my time. You know you have limited time and if you don’t get things done in that time it’s after hours. Limiting my work after hours is something I’ve been trying to focus on this year and it has been slightly better but it’s still not where it should be. Whenever I’m in dire straits I will ask for help, but then I feel like I am not managing well enough. I guess that’s one annoying trait is you always have mother’s guilt. Guilt for working, guilt for any time you have to yourself and guilt for feeling like you should be a better mother. Feeling like you’re not doing anything good enough is a common post maternity leave feeling. You’re not in the right headspace from sleep deprivation, or you’ve got so much on that it’s hard to be present when you’re at home with the kids or when you’re at work. Now that my kids are at school, it is getting better, but quietening the inner critic is a task in itself..”
Now Heidi and I have had a lot of chats about the inner critic. Previous female colleagues have also felt this heaviness, this monster that sits on your shoulders, undercutting your confidence. So I asked her how hers was doing.
“It’s pretty good actually. Sometimes, the more downtime you have the more it can creep in. If you’ve had some time off and you come back to work, and are catching up there are moments where that inner critic or the imposter syndrome raises its ugly head”
Heidi recently won a scholarship through the Clean Energy Council for a course called Your Leadership Voice. It’s a fantastic recognition of what she’s achieved. I asked if this has helped with silencing the inner critic (or at least muffling it.)
“Obviously getting the recognition and exposure has been really good. I often think that anyone can do my role and that its no big deal. But then the CEC’s speaker guide was published and there are 7 women from my team in WSP in the guide and that’s actually really fantastic.”
Women in leadership
The scholarship is not the first leadership course that Heidi is doing. She recently completed the Women on Boards (WOB) Next Generation of Female Leaders Program. So it got me thinking about how some men seem to be groomed for leadership from an early age, perhaps unconsciously. I asked if she thought it would have been a harder road without supplementing her role with studies?
“Speaking generically – women rarely put themselves forward for the next role. But for me, somewhere along the management pathway these leadership qualities started to come out. Thankfully, I had the opportunity with WOB and through the WOB course I had the headspace to recognise that I had some natural leadership qualities and that those qualities were valuable, and so it really inspired me to want to continue to develop those skills. I have so much to learn and develop and it is so interesting. It’s all about people, relationships, being human, connecting and engaging to achieve a common set of goals.”
This is a hard skill to quantify. It’s hard to compare it to technical knowledge, where you know how to size a bolt. But it’s important and interesting nonetheless, because in the engineering sector you often see what happens when a heavily technical person is put into a leadership position without these skills…
“Quite often men will confidently put themselves forward for the next role. As everyone knows, if there’s a list of six requirements in a job ad, guys will have a completely different approach to it, saying ‘I’ll be able to do that’ whereas women will say ‘I haven’t done that’ and they won’t apply for a job unless they tick most of the boxes. I’ve had a couple of experiences where I have had opportunities come up and just doubted that I could do the role. So I have had interviews where my heart wasn’t in it purely because I didn’t have the confidence to back me up.”
I asked Heidi if she had ever found herself chasing a female candidate who hasn’t put themselves out there, but who had potential.
“For me this is one of the most important things we should be doing as an organisation; identifying those women who are suitable for the senior level but possibly haven’t had the management or leadership experience. One of my team members is a great example. She said she wasn’t ready for a leadership role. After managing to convince her, she is now flourishing, she loves the people management and leadership side. It’s important to give women that opportunity, being proactive in identifying them, and helping them take that initial leap. I was fortunate that someone saw potential leadership qualities in me, otherwise I don’t know where I’d be. The last few years have been the most enjoyable of my career. “
It feels like just yesterday, but five months ago I moved from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast. On the way up decided we’d take a leisurely drive up through central New South Wales. The main aim was to visit the Parkes radio telescope and Dubbo zoo. But at the back of my mind I knew that there were a few solar farms in the region, and while it was a bit of a whistle stop tour, we did manage to swing past Parkes Solar Farm.
Parkes is a lovely town – bigger than we expected. We had spent the evening before watching The Dish so we were ready for the telescope itself. It’s really impressive. An incredible piece of engineering, a significant part of astronomical history and just a generally interesting place to visit.
I have a bit of background knowledge on the Parkes facility, having been aware of some of the comings and goings during construction, through work, and it was good to see it in person. The developer of the project is a French owned company called Neoen. Some takeaway stats from the project’s site:
Installed capacity: 66MW
Expected annual generation: 138,000MWh
Land size: 210 Hectares
Commencement of full operation reached March 2018
All of these nuggets of info are out there in the public domain, so the main point of this post is to show off pics from a drone that was sent up outside the site. Behold, Parkes Solar Farm.
Neoen has a few other projects in NSW, and I have worked briefly on some of these in various capacities. I’d done a site visit to Griffith Solar Farm before at the end of construction, and had a hand in Coleambally Solar Farm in the lead up to Financial Close and during construction (the project reached commercial operation recently, which was impressive, given the short construction timeframe and the ambitious size of the project). Neoen also have Dubbo Solar Hub in NSW, made up of Dubbo and Narromine Solar Farms. I was within spitting distance of the Narromine farm, but we just didn’t have time to get there.
While Neoen has extensive experience in NSW, they have also been making inroads into other states. I had been involved on Numurkah Solar Farm prior to Financial Close – this VRET project is currently under construction in Victoria. They also have development approvals in Queensland, and I know that they are actively pursuing various other options.
Large scale solar construction projects are typically made up of dozens of milestones, outlined in the contract, which need to be met before payments can be made to the contractor. There are normally at least three parties involved in the processing of these payment claims, and they can cumbersome things to navigate. This post looks at what the typical milestones in a solar project are and what documentation is important.
But first, a step back. To defining the milestones:
Prior to financial close (where the necessary contracts are executed, and financing is secured) there will likely be a bit of backwards and forwards on what the key project milestones will be, and how much of the overall lump sum contract price will be allocated to each. The milestone schedule, payment schedule, project programme and financial model are all built and developed in parallel, and changing one may have an impact on the others. The contractor is interested in making sure that they have healthy cashflow throughout the project. Procurement activities in particular require a heavy outlay of cash, so they will want to get paid for completed procurement works, which typically take place towards the front end of the programme. The owner, and lenders, will want to make sure that they are receiving value for these payments, so they will be interested in making sure that the payment amount is fair, given what works have been completed.
Some of the typical milestones (and therefore payment triggers) include the following:
Notice to proceed
This is a mobilisation payment, often made to the contractor upon the award of the contract. For instance 10% of the contract price. The evidence required from the contractor is typically a letter from the owner to the contractor confirming that they have permission to go ahead with the works under the contract and that any conditions precedent to them starting works have been met, or waived as required. It may be accompanied by other documentation showing that the contractor has done all the necessary preparation works, such as securing insurance, accessing bank guarantees, appointing certain key personnel etc. The level of complexity in assessing this milestone is very much dependent on the contract requirements, but it should not be overly complicated.
This shows that the contractor has place the orders for the equipment. The evidence for these type of milestones is typically in an executed (and often redacted) contract with the equipment supplier. Additional requirements may include the supplier’s quality management plan, factory acceptance test schedule, delivery plan, and transportation, storage and handling, and installation and operations & maintenance guidelines. Reviewers should be checking that the specifications of what has been procured matches the contract employer’s requirements. The product warranties should also match the contract. Delivery schedules should be in line with the project schedule. Key components and equipment in a solar facility included as milestones are typically PV modules, structures/trackers and inverters.
This is to demonstrate that the equipment procured has been successfully delivered. These milestones should be accompanied by a lot of documentation. This can be one of the most onerous milestone types and it’s very important that the contractor has good controls in place to make this easy to review. For each equipment type, there should be a summary report which links actual equipment to containers or batches. For instance, PV modules will likely be manufactured in batches. Each PV module has a serial number, and these serial numbers are grouped together into pallets. Which are grouped together into containers, which are grouped together into batches. Which cumulatively make up the entire facility.
There should be documentation and reporting which allows someone to trace each module from the manufacturing line all the way to its delivery to site. A summary report should be maintained, identifying the position of each container (ex-works, on a ship, at port, on site etc) and a reviewer should be able to identify which containers have been delivered to site. This summary report should be supported by a myriad of documentation, including packing lists, waybills/bills of lading, serial number lists and delivery notes. In addition, there should be factory acceptance test reports and any independent factory inspection reports provided, and any applicable certificates from the manufacturer. The reviewer’s role here is not to go through everything in minute detail, but to carry out spot checks to verify that the contractor’s report is accurate, and that they are implementing proper logistical and document control throughout the whole process. Site inspections are then often carried out to verify that the equipment is being delivered in good order and that the contractor is complying with the handling and storage guidelines. It can be a big job, and messy and confusing paperwork makes it a whole lot bigger.
There are a lot of construction activities that can be considered for payment milestones: mobilisation to site, the completion of the boundary fence, access roads, O&M buildings and substations. But it’s typically the repetitive activities that get most of the attention, which in the case of solar are largely piling, tracker installation, module installation and inverter (or MV power station) installation.
What’s important here is what is understood by both parties to be a completed construction activity? On any project there will be some punch list activities that need to be closed out, but what is considered to be reasonable? Does everyone agree? For electrical equipment, is it enough that the unit is physically in place or should it be connected, with cables plugged in?
How is the facility divided up into sections? Is a milestone linked to an individual section of the facility? Or can the contractor claim for a percentage of works completed, regardless of where the works are taking place. Keep in mind that the first wave of construction activities can be fairly quick to do, but coming back and resolving quality issues, and closing off punch list items can take longer.
Quality documentation is the most important here, and what is inlcuded in the overall payment claim should match the contractor’s progress report, which, in turn, should align with the quality documentation. Inspection and test plans (ITPs) should be followed, and there should be inspection and test checks that are provided. Observations during walkarounds on site should align with the contractor’s quality documentation.
Mechanical Completion is often a key construction milestone. For this, all construction activities should be completed, quality documentation should be available, the punchlist should be manageable, and not affect the facility’s performance or safety, the facility should be ready for commissioning, and all the little construction activities that may not have been included as individual milestones (such as the security system) should be in and ready to be commissioned.
Commissioning milestones may be separated into cold commissioning (commissioning activities that can be carried out before the facility is connected to the grid) and hot commissioning (after grid connection). It is common that the owner, owner’s representative, independent or lender’s engineer may witness selected commissioning activities, to confirm that the data provided match the observations on site, and to verify that the contractor is following the commissioning plan. But commissioning milestones are often overshadowed or substituted for major completion milestones, such as practical completion or even commercial operation. These major milestones are influenced and informed by performance tests and grid compliance tests.
A portion of the contract price, such as 5%, is normally held for these milestones, and the contractor needs to demonstrate the facility’s performance and compliance with the network service provider/regulator/purchaser’s requirements. The nature of tests to be conducted and paperwork to be provided is determined by the local regulatory requirements.
They will also need to show that the facility is able to perform, by applying the performance ratio (or equivalent) tests outlined in the contract. Performance data should be provided for review, along with the application of calculations as defined in the contract, and any underperformance may be subject to performance liquidated damages.
I have worked on projects with nearly one hundred milestones, and others with only a few dozen. What matters most is whether they are clearly defined, and whether the parties have agreed upfront what constitutes the completion of an activity and what information and documentation is required. I couldn’t overstate the importance of having a session or two right at the beginning of the construction phase to clarify expectations as early as possible.