Toby Seay is president of Bechtel Power’s Communications and Transmission business line and a senior vice president of Bechtel Power Corporation.
Seay’s path to his present position began when he was a boy in Denver, where his father owned a two-way radio business. He followed his father into the industry, then onto McCaw Communications, and subsequently to McCaw’s new owner, AT&T Wireless Services. From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, Seay traveled the United States for AT&T Wireless, building cell towers. He was responsible for the company’s multi-billiondollar GSM (global standard for mobile communications) construction program.
In 2003, Seay moved to Ericsson, the Swedish equipment manufacturer, where, as executive vice president and general manager, he oversaw sales, project management, and project development. He managed Ericsson’s work with Cingular Wireless, including the initial development and deployment of the first networks in the United States to employ WCDMA/HSDPA (wideband code division multiple access/ high-speed downlink packet access). His efforts were instrumental in helping spread Ericsson’s cutting-edge technology throughout the United States.
Seay joined Bechtel in 2006 as manager of Business Development and Marketing for the Communications organization. He later became responsible for global strategy and project award negotiations. In 2008, he became president of Communications, then a standalone major business segment and a Bechtel Global Business Unit (GBU) as Bechtel Power is today.
President, Communications & Transmission
Global Business Unit
MOVING COMMUNICATIONS INTO BECHTEL'S POWER BUSINESS
In 2009 the Communications GBU became part of Bechtel’s Power GBU, a change that made sense for a number of reasons and that strengthened both organizations. Given the cyclical nature of the Communications business, Seay recognized that Communications and Power could complement each other, making better use of resources and creating additional opportunities for their employees. While Communications may be very busy in one business cycle installing new technology on towers and rooftops, a quiet period usually follows as new technology is being developed. Making Communications and Power part of the same GBU would enable both organizations to more easily share resources as activities ebb and flow.
Moreover, synergies could be realized by each organization drawing on the skills and methods of the other. For example, a typical Bechtel Power project tends to put thousands of employees “behind a single fence” working together, with only a handful of individuals interacting regularly with the customer, suppliers, or public officials. The situation is typically reversed in a Communications project—the vast majority of personnel deal with landlords, tenants, zoning commissions, and other public officials on a daily basis; only a few employees principally interact among themselves. Power projects could learn from Communications’ experience working with the public and outside parties, while Communications stood to benefit from Power’s experience with supply, technical complexity, and management of large internal organizations.
Another factor cited by Seay in the decision to combine Communications with Power centers on the fact that Power already had a business segment focused on transmission— the upgrading and construction of high-tension transmission lines. Like communications, transmission involves a long-distance routing function. While the transmission work executed by the Power GBU is a relatively small portion of its business portfolio—after all, most of the electric grid in the United States was completed decades ago— Power’s heavy involvement in constructing power generation facilities has always included constructing both the switching stations at the plants as well as the tie lines leading to the grid. To help upgrade its work in this sector, it was only logical that Bechtel seek to bring the skill sets it had developed in the communications market to its transmission business.
Seay notes that other similarities between Transmission and Communications point to effective teaming. “When my Communications people go to a jobsite, it is typically the office of a local landowner, or a farm—to install equipment on a roof top or a cell tower. He or she might visit 20 sites a month. It’s the same with Transmission; the sites are farms or rural rights-of-way, and many interactions take place in offices face-toface with stakeholders. In both cases, Bechtel wants to be a good steward of the property in question, and in both cases there might be site acquisition issues to resolve. Transmission jobs are a lot like cell phone tower jobs in that multiple public stakeholders are involved.”
Finally, Seay notes the similarities in the complexity— the logistics—involved in work executed by both Power and Communications. Both businesses require large quantities of materials to be purchased and delivered to the right place at the right time. “The complexity of the communications business generally lies in its logistical aspects,” Seay says. “Building a single cell tower is not difficult, but building a thousand cell towers is a different story. At the same time, we must meet or exceed a myriad of safety, quality, and engineering standards. Through years of dealing with the complex logistics and dealing with the public, we in Communications had built up a skill set that we thought would work well with the Power GBU's civil and electrical engineering expertise and procurement capabilities.”
LINKING WITH POWER'S TRANSMISSION BUSINESS
With the Communications and Transmission business line having been formed within Bechtel Power, Seay has concentrated on marketing and strategy. “We began to see the transmission business as more of a network business than a power business. You don’t build a single tower or a single substation without impacting the whole network. Transmission is a distributed model, very much like wireless communications. And you are working in a live environment, working on live assets. Moreover, a large array of civil and electrical skills is needed, and these are skills that our combined Communications and Power workforce possesses.”
The view of the transmission business as more of a network business also relates to Bechtel Power’s increasing involvement with renewable forms of energy such as solar and wind. Solar and wind farms will need connection to the grid, resulting in additional demand for new or upgraded transmission lines. Electricity generated by solar and wind will be distributed differently than electricity produced by traditional power generation plants: connections will need to be made to transmission networks in a way that will drive new investment and upgrades to the existing grid.
According to Seay, Bechtel has recognized for some time that changes are coming for transmission. For one thing, the electric grid has been undercapitalized for decades and will need upgrading. Also, the increasing interest in renewable power and the need to retire older plants will lead to shifts in demand across regions of the United States. “Although transmission has not been a large market for us, many of our past customers will have to increase capital investments in transmission,” Seay says.
THE TRANSMISSION MARKET — NOW AND IN THE FUTURE
As previously noted, Bechtel has not been heavily involved in transmission work in this country for several decades. However, the market may be picking up owing to the need for upgrades to accommodate growing demand and shifts in demand among regions, tie- in sources of renewable power, and efforts to counter physical and cyber threats. Accordingly, Seay sees Bechtel returning to the transmission business in a big way. He points to Bechtel’s depth of experience in working on switchyards and tie lines and its expertise in managing logistics. “Put these capabilities together with the skill sets we have from Communications and we have a winning proposition,” he says.
“Permitting is especially difficult when a power line crosses state lines or moves from one grid region to another. There is really no government body effectively dealing with this,” Seay comments. “But here again, the Communications people can help. They have been dealing with permitting for decades and can work with the people, companies, and public bodies that control the permitting process.”
The biggest demand now is for upgrading existing transmission lines rather than building new ones, Seay indicates. Currently, the Communications and Transmission organization is working on an $800 million project in Alberta, Canada, upgrading a transmission line. The project specification includes the construction of nine brownfield and three greenfield substations over 150 km of existing right-ofway and 50 km of new right-of-way. “I believe there are significant amounts of this kind of work coming along,” says Seay. “You take down the old wooden towers and put up steel. Some companies have historically performed this work themselves, but they are seeing their transmission work grow tenfold and need assistance in scaling up. That’s when they come to us for help. We can assist with our engineering capabilities, leveraging our supply chain for materials and equipment, and providing the construction resources.”
Seay points to another project in Alberta involving construction of a new 500-km transmission line between Edmonton and Calgary. Bechtel is performing the engineering, assisting with the right-of-way work, and handling the construction. “We believe we will be in Alberta for some time to come and in other Canadian provinces as well,” he says. “There seems to be a strong demand for upgrading the infrastructure and adding transmission lines.”
There is also work for Seay’s Communications and Transmission business line in Chile. The project principally involves constructing transmission lines from the coast extending as far as 200 km to mines in the mountains. He expects a good market for this type of transmission work over an extended period, with demand expanding into Peru, where mines are also under development. “Wherever demand for electricity is growing—in such places as this in South America and in Canada with its tar sands—we expect a need for transmission line work.”
Seay also has an eye on offshore wind farms. He notes that Bechtel has expertise in executing such efforts, having performed offshore work for oil and gas projects. “We believe that offshore electric generation is going to become more sophisticated,” he says. “Rather than running individual tie lines from wind farms off shore, we expect several wind farms will capitalize on the efficiency of creating a network of substations off the coast with a single tie line running to a major substation on shore that ties to the grid.” Seay is looking with interest to potential wind farms along the Atlantic coast as well as off the coast of Britain. He believes that in four or five years, Bechtel will be involved in offshore wind and transmission projects worldwide.
“Accordingly, we are building up our capacity and scaling up responsibly,” Seay says. “We believe the market will continue to develop for us both in the United States and abroad over the next 24 months as people come to understand what Bechtel has to offer in the transmission business. Our capacity continues to increase as more companies look to the next level—either by building up their internal capability or engaging an EPC contractor like Bechtel. As companies face an increasing need for EPC services, they come to recognize the value of the kind of capabilities Bechtel offers.”