Risk Scenario

Hard Crash

An equipment breakdown harms a company and kills a career.
By: | August 31, 2015 • 7 min read
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.

Part One: Pressure Builds

Barry Little cast an appreciative glance back at the front door of the elementary school where he’d just dropped off his little girl Lila, age 5, for her morning kindergarten class. He was grateful that he trusted Lila’s teacher and the rest of the school staff.

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Walking to his car, with the late September sun warming his face, he ticked off the other reasons he had for being happy. Ten minutes before dropping Lila off, he’d dropped off her little brother Benjamin at daycare. Benjamin was a joy, now speaking in full sentences and displaying a wry sense of humor.

Driving to work, Little ruminated on his further good fortune. He was celebrating the one-year anniversary of his promotion to plant manager of the Glaucus Inc. ammonia plant in nearby Edmonton, in the province of Alberta, Canada.

His promotion coincided with increased natural gas production in the fields close to the Edmonton plant. Natural gas is the feedstock for ammonia, and its recent abundance and lower cost was a boon for the company.

Just that week, his managers asked him to extend the current ammonia production run out two years to take advantage of the lower cost of natural gas and the burgeoning demand for fertilizer in the emerging economies of India and China.

Ammonia is a key raw material for the production of fertilizers. But there are inherent risks. Ammonia production is a demanding process on plant equipment. And the extended production run was being performed at the expense of regularly scheduled equipment maintenance.

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Little knew the reasons for management’s decision. With global revenues at close to $1 billion annually, publicly traded Glaucus could run that figure close to $1.25 billion in this two-year window.

There was another factor gnawing at Little. The vastly increased production of natural gas in North America meant that chemical manufacturing was on the upswing. New plants were being built and existing plants expanded which increased lead times for equipment and spare parts

In this high-demand environment, contingency plans that included the purchase of spare parts were important to minimize any downtime due an equipment breakdown. Little, relatively new to this position, was in the process of drafting contingency plans, but they weren’t complete. The plant had some spare parts and equipment, but it was questionable whether that was adequate.

***

Little was relaxing that night after dinner, keeping half an eye on an Edmonton Eskimos game, when his cell phone lit up.

A fast moving storm was moving through Alberta. No sooner had Little seen that news on his phone, when he got a call. A lightning strike at the Glaucus plant tripped the electrical system off line, triggering a “hard crash” and a complete shutdown of the plant.

“Gotta go,” Little said to his wife as he jumped up and grabbed his raincoat.

“Where to?” she said.

“The plant’s been knocked out by a lightning strike. I gotta get over there!”

“Drive safely!” she called after him but he was already out the door.

Driving to the plant with rain pelting his windshield, Little’s mind raced.

“What to do?”

The truth was, he didn’t know.

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Part Two: Break Down

When Little arrived at the stricken plant, his assistant plant manager, Denny Ashe, was waiting for him just outside the door.

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“It’s a complete shutdown, nothing is on line,” Ashe said as he and Little walked into the plant together.

Little strode out into the plant’s main control room. Nothing seemed amiss, but everything was shut down.

“Do we have power?” he asked Ashe.

“Yep, we’re just reconnected,” Ashe said. “The strike tripped our system, but the circuit breakers have been reset and service has been restored.”

Little stood, looking at the idled control panels for the plant’s equipment and at the faces of the operators, who were watching him expectantly. The faces of the watching operators triggered something in Little.

It looked like they were expecting him to act, so he did.

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Little turned to Ashe.

“Let’s start it back up.”

“Are you sure?” Ashe said.

Ashe was just asking a question, but it angered Little.

“Yes I’m sure!” Little thundered.

“Start it up like I said!”

Just then, the phone number of Little’s manager flashed on his phone. Flustered, Little didn’t answer the call.

What Little didn’t know and didn’t take the time to find out was that a critical steam turbine driving a process compressor was damaged when the lightning strike shut the plant down so suddenly. The turbine was vulnerable because it hadn’t been properly maintained due to production demands.

Little went out and stood in the middle of the compressor building with his hands on his hips as Ashe worked with the operators in the control room to get the plant back on line.

When the plant restarted, the turbine started to vibrate excessively. Without vibration trips, the turbine continued to operate. The vibration caused a lubrication oil line to break, which in turn started a fire.

“Fire!” one of the turbine operators yelled as he ran to grab a fire extinguisher since there was no sprinkler protection installed, but another turbine operator beat him to it. The fire was so intense that it burned the two workers severely.

Denny Ashe shut the plant back down as calls went out to the emergency response team.

As a member of the emergency response team used a first-aid kit to attend to the turbine operators, Little stepped back, realizing that he still held his phone in his hand.

He couldn’t look at the injured workers laid out on the compressor building floor, with their co-workers offering them aid. He couldn’t face it.

Little just stared at his phone in shock, unwilling to dial his boss’s number.

***

It took a week of meetings between plant operational personnel to determine just how bad the situation was.

The team determined that the $10 million turbine, which was crucial to the plant’s production process, was totally destroyed.

The plant was powerless without the turbine; it couldn’t produce ammonia.

“I can’t tell you,” is what the equipment manufacturer said when Little called him and asked when they could deliver a replacement.

“It could be six months, it could be nine months, it could be longer,” the manufacturer’s representative said.

“When are we going to be back up?” is what Little’s manager asked him, two weeks after the shutdown and the turbine fire.

“I can’t answer that question,” Little said.

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Part Three: A Chilling Dawn

Seven months after the lightning strike and the turbine fire that injured two workers, Little finally had an answer to that question.

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With a date for the delivery of the replacement turbine now firm, it would be two more months before Glaucus Inc.’s Edmonton plant could resume ammonia production.

Little’s initial inability to tell senior management when the plant would reopen motivated them to send an engineering team from the company’s Shreveport, La., plant to conduct a complete inspection of the Edmonton plant.

“I want to state for the record that I was asked by management to extend the production run at the expense of the regularly scheduled maintenance,” Little told the inspection team as they sat down with him and some of the senior management team to report on their findings.

“Barry, we’re not here to officiate between you and your manager,” the head of the Shreveport engineering team told him.

“We’re just here to report on what we found.”

The engineering team reported that the Edmonton plant’s electrical system was well used and wasn’t adequately maintained. It didn’t matter that Barry Little had only been plant manager for a year, the fault lay at his feet.

The engineering team also faulted the Edmonton operation for extending production without maintaining the plant’s equipment; not installing vibration trips on the critical turbine; not adequately maintaining turbine integrity; failing to have a written contingency plan, including maintaining spares for critical pieces of equipment and not installing sprinkler protection on the turbine.

Instead of being on track to increase its revenues from $1 billion to $1.25 billion, Glaucus Inc. saw its revenues in the year of the Edmonton plant failure slip down to $900 million. The work stoppage at Edmonton cost the company $125 million in plant repairs and lost revenues.

When it reported its full-year figures, the company’s stock price tumbled 20 percent.

The fact that Barry Little was in the process of writing a contingency plan when the plant experienced the lightning strike and hard crash didn’t help him much. He was fired in the first quarter of the following year.

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Risk & Insurance® partnered with FM Global to produce this scenario. Below are FM Global’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance®.

No company can afford the loss of property, lives and productivity from destruction caused by fire, natural hazards or equipment outage. Equipment damaged in minutes can take many months to repair or replace. If there is business interruption, revenue, stock price and shareholder confidence all can take a major hit. Market position may be lost. Inflation and material shortage may make rebuilding difficult and costly.

Of course, insurance helps alleviate some of the cost associated with property damage. But insurance isn’t the only answer, especially when considering the loss of customers, productivity, goodwill and staff.

Reliable equipment delivers resilient service to your production, utility and support systems, can reduce risk to your business and help your organization maintain a competitive advantage.




Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Alternative Energy

A Shift in the Wind

As warranties run out on wind turbines, underwriters gain insight into their long-term costs.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 6 min read

Wind energy is all grown up. It is no longer an alternative, but in some wholesale markets has set the incremental cost of generation.

As the industry has grown, turbine towers have as well. And as the older ones roll out of their warranty periods, there are more claims.

This is a bit of a pinch in a soft market, but it gives underwriters new insight into performance over time — insight not available while manufacturers were repairing or replacing components.

Charles Long, area SVP, renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

“There is a lot of capacity in the wind market,” said Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy at broker Arthur J. Gallagher.

“The segment is still very soft. What we are not seeing is any major change in forms from the major underwriters. They still have 280-page forms. The specialty underwriters have a 48-page form. The larger carriers need to get away from a standard form with multiple endorsements and move to a form designed for wind, or solar, or storage. It is starting to become apparent to the clients that the firms have not kept up with construction or operations,” at renewable energy facilities, he said.

Third-party liability also remains competitive, Long noted.

“The traditional markets are doing liability very well. There are opportunities for us to market to multiple carriers. There is a lot of generation out there, but the bulk of the writing is by a handful of insurers.”

Broadly the market is “still softish,” said Jatin Sharma, head of business development for specialty underwriter G-Cube.

“There has been an increase in some distressed areas, but there has also been some regional firming. Our focus is very much on the technical underwriting. We are also emphasizing standardization, clean contracts. That extends to business interruption, marine transit, and other covers.”

The Blade Problem

“Gear-box maintenance has been a significant issue for a long time, and now with bigger and bigger blades, leading-edge erosion has become a big topic,” said Sharma. “Others include cracking and lightning and even catastrophic blade loss.”

Long, at Gallagher, noted that operationally, gear boxes have been getting significantly better. “Now it is blades that have become a concern,” he said. “Problems include cracking, fraying, splitting.

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“In response, operators are using more sophisticated inspection techniques, including flying drones. Those reduce the amount of climbing necessary, reducing risk to personnel as well.”

Underwriters certainly like that, and it is a huge cost saver to the owners, however, “we are not yet seeing that credited in the underwriting,” said Long.

He added that insurance is playing an important role in the development of renewable energy beyond the traditional property, casualty, and liability coverages.

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine. Weather risk coverage can be done in multiple ways, or there can be an actual put, up to a fixed portion of capacity, plus or minus 20 percent, like a collar; a straight over/under.”

As useful as those financial instruments are, the first priority is to get power into the grid. And for that, Long anticipates “aggressive forward moves around storage. Spikes into the system are not good. Grid storage is not just a way of providing power when the wind is not blowing; it also acts as a shock absorber for times when the wind blows too hard. There are ebbs and flows in wind and solar so we really need that surge capacity.”

Long noted that there are some companies that are storage only.

“That is really what the utilities are seeking. The storage company becomes, in effect, just another generator. It has its own [power purchase agreement] and its own interconnect.”

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine.”  —Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

Another trend is co-location, with wind and solar, as well as grid-storage or auxiliary generation, on the same site.

“Investors like it because it boosts internal rates of return on the equity side,” said Sharma. “But while it increases revenue, it also increases exposure. … You may have a $400 million wind farm, plus a $150 million solar array on the same substation.”

In the beginning, wind turbines did not generate much power, explained Rob Battenfield, senior vice president and head of downstream at JLT Specialty USA.

“As turbines developed, they got higher and higher, with bigger blades. They became more economically viable. There are still subsidies, and at present those subsidies drive the investment decisions.”

For example, some non-tax paying utilities are not eligible for the tax credits, so they don’t invest in new wind power. But once smaller companies or private investors have made use of the credits, the big utilities are likely to provide a ready secondary market for the builders to recoup their capital.

That structure also affects insurance. More PPAs mandate grid storage for intermittent generators such as wind and solar. State of the art for such storage is lithium-ion batteries, which have been prone to fires if damaged or if they malfunction.

“Grid storage is getting larger,” said Battenfield. “If you have variable generation you need to balance that. Most underwriters insure generation and storage together. Project leaders may need to have that because of non-recourse debt financing. On the other side, insurers may be syndicating the battery risk, but to the insured it is all together.”

“Grid storage is getting larger. If you have variable generation you need to balance that.” — Rob Battenfield, senior vice president, head of downstream, JLT Specialty USA

There has also been a mechanical and maintenance evolution along the way. “The early-generation short turbines were throwing gears all the time,” said Battenfield.

But now, he said, with fewer manufacturers in play, “the blades, gears, nacelles, and generators are much more mechanically sound and much more standardized. Carriers are more willing to write that risk.”

There is also more operational and maintenance data now as warranties roll off. Battenfield suggested that the door started to open on that data three or four years ago, but it won’t stay open forever.

“When the equipment was under warranty, it would just be repaired or replaced by the manufacturer,” he said.

“Now there’s more equipment out of warranty, there are more claims. However, if the big utilities start to aggregate wind farms, claims are likely to drop again. That is because the utilities have large retentions, often about $5 million. Claims and premiums are likely to go down for wind equipment.”

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Repair costs are also dropping, said Battenfield.

“An out-of-warranty blade set replacement can cost $300,000. But if it is repairable by a third party, it could cost as little as $30,000 to have a specialist in fiberglass do it in a few days.”

As that approach becomes more prevalent, business interruption (BI) coverage comes to the fore. Battenfield stressed that it is important for owners to understand their PPA obligations, as well as BI triggers and waiting periods.

“The BI challenge can be bigger than the property loss,” said Battenfield. “It is important that coverage dovetails into the operator’s contractual obligations.” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]