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"The Commissioning Department checks that the construction phase of the plant is correct"

From left to right: Christian Albuerne, Conventional Plant Commissioning Manager, José Rafael Jorda, Director of the Commissioning Department, and Jesús Fernandez Meseguer, Desalination Commissioning Manager.

In the complex world of water plants and facilities, the commissioning phase is essential to ensure their correct construction and operation. At ACCIONA, José Rafael Jorda heads this department, where he leads a multidisciplinary team of professionals.

In this interview, we talk about the functions of this area of work within ACCIONA. José Rafael Jorda explains that this department, multi-purpose in nature, is made up of professionals from different fields, and focuses on checking that the construction phase has been well executed and on ensuring that the treatment plants work and provide the water quality intended in the design. In the last two years, their usual activities have had to be adapted to the restrictions resulting from COVID-19, emphasizing the significance of Commissioning.

First, can you tell us about your career path and how did you get involved in the water industry?

I studied Environmental Biology at the Autonomous University of Madrid and before joining ACCIONA in 1998 I had already worked in the field of water and wastewater treatment. At ACCIONA Agua I have performed different functions, in the R&D&I Department, as Plant Manager in different areas of Spain and also in the department in charge of operation and wastewater treatment bids. Subsequently, I was appointed Manager of Wastewater Treatment Processes in the Assembly and Commissioning Department and from there I went on to manage first the conventional commissioning department and later, conventional and desalination, a position that I have combined for the last 4 years with that of process manager at the North Shore plant in Vancouver, Canada.

Currently, you head the Commissioning Department at ACCIONA. What are the objectives of this department?

At the Commissioning Department, we do a little bit of everything. We are a multi-purpose department, with very different professional profiles that cover many disciplines but are also highly specialised in specific areas.

To put it simply, we check that the construction phase of the plant has been well executed and then ensure the treatment plants work and deliver the water quality intended in the design.

We often are also in charge of plant operations during the warranty period, which can last from one month to two years.

What type of professional profiles are part of this department? And how is the department's team organised?

We are a team of approximately 30 people, plus local teams for each of the projects, which can have between 10 and 50 people per project.

I directly coordinate the two branches (conventional and desalination); each of them in turn has a manager who directly supports and coordinates the desalination and conventional commissioning teams. In addition, we have an office support team that provides document support for the different projects and also supports other departments such as Commercial, Bids, Engineering, Construction and O&M.

Regarding the profile of the people who work there, I would say that it is difficult to find a "typical" profile because we have mechanical, electrical, instrumentation and control engineers, chemists, biologists, etc. In the end, it is about having a team of people who can solve all kinds of problems in a short period of time. They are generally very proactive professionals who could come in during any phase of a project, bringing a lot of value due to their experience. And in fact, this is often the case, the commissioning team collaborates in the engineering, construction and operation phases.

At the Commissioning Department we do a little bit of everything. We are a multi-purpose department, with different professional profiles

A few years ago, the projects were mainly national, in Spain, and the profile of the commissioning personnel could be a retired seafarer who travelled around Spain returning home on weekends to be with his family.

Today, this has changed substantially. The projects are international and balancing work and family life is not always easy. They require a high level of training and languages to deal with very demanding international customers.

Within the process involved in water treatment facilities, at what stage does the commissioning department come into play, and what are its functions?

We usually come in during the final stages of construction, when the equipment assembly has been completed, collaborating with the assembly team and planning all commissioning tests with the client.

Among other things, we check that the equipment is correctly installed according to the design, that it operates correctly under load and according to the manufacturer's specifications, and that it is ready to start the next phase. This phase is known as pre-commissioning.

In all projects, the plant must be operated continuously for a period of time, complying with the expected effluent quality

We then carry out operational tests to verify that the equipment systems work correctly with the operating control system and that they can operate in automatic mode, that is, the so-called commissioning itself. And finally, we perform the final performance and reliability tests, which demonstrate the quality of the treated water according to the design guarantees.

In all projects, the plant must be operated continuously for a period of time that has been agreed with the client, complying with the expected effluent quality. If this is achieved, the plant acceptance certificate is obtained, and the warranty operation period begins; the duration of this period varies depending on the contract.

"The commissioning personnel always work under pressure to finish on time and make up for any delays from previous stages"

What are the main challenges you face in your area of work?

Anyone could think of technical, electrical or mechanical difficulties, but if we think about it, the commissioning personnel always work under pressure to finish on time and make up for any delays from previous stages of construction.

This entails, especially during testing periods, working very long hours day after day. For example, in the last two months, there have been managers working more than 30 hours at a time. All of them deserve a special recognition that I would like to give them from here.

The commissioning of desalination and water treatment infrastructure are two of the most important areas under your management, in ACCIONA's water division. What are the differences and similarities between these two areas of work?

The big difference between desalination plants and other water treatment plants is the reverse osmosis process. In desalination, RO membranes are used and in drinking water treatment and wastewater treatment, they generally aren't.  Desalination plants also typically have many more signals and instrumentation than conventional water treatment plants. This means that the workload and resources required for commissioning are higher than in other plants of similar size. This also makes plant automation more complex and demanding.  

The big difference between desalination facilities and other water treatment plants is the reverse osmosis process

In addition to reverse osmosis, another difference between the two is found in the sludge line. In desalination, it is practically reduced to brine discharge, while in conventional plants there is a whole sludge treatment process (thickening, flotation, dehydration, etc.) prior to final discharge from the plant.

On the other hand, how does the digital and technological transformation influence the processes involved in these plants?

These last two years in particular have been especially difficult because of the pandemic and the travelling restrictions resulting from COVID-19, forcing us to look for new alternatives.

For instance, in the middle of last year, we began remote testing and commissioning of the control system for the Al Khobar 1 desalination plant in Saudi Arabia.

A secure remote connection to the plant's control system was established for this purpose. Thanks to it, a team of experts distributed in several locations in Spain was able to remotely start testing the control and process adjustment system. We were thus able to start up the first reverse osmosis racks and begin sending drinking water to the distribution system despite the travelling restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

Finally, does ACCIONA have any initiative underway to reduce the environmental footprint of desalination and water treatment plants?

Currently, ACCIONA has an ambitious 2025 SUSTAINABILITY MASTER PLAN that was launched in 2020, which of course includes numerous actions aimed to reduce our carbon footprint.

Its main transformation levers and objectives are:

  • Investment of more than 90% of the CAPEX in environmentally sustainable economic activities according to the EU taxonomy.
  • Identification of zero carbon alternatives in all purchasing categories.
  • Use of renewable energies in 100% of the projects where available.
  • Apply nature-based solutions (NBS) equal or equivalent to planting and monitoring the growth of 1 million trees in 5 years, capable of neutralizing ACCIONA's carbon footprint by 2025.
  • Double the consumption of renewable and recycled resources and halve the amount of waste going to landfill.
  • Water positive projects in 100% of the projects in water-stressed areas.

ACCIONA’s ambitious 2025 Sustainability Master Plan includes numerous actions aimed to reducing our carbon footprint

At the ACCIONA Group level, the list of actions is huge. In fact, ACCIONA managed to avoid 70 million tonnes of CO2e between 2016 and 2020, through Efficient Building, Mobility Services, Circular Economy and Urban Ecosystems.

In the WATER line, we have some examples such as the Jebel Ali desalination plant in Dubai, recently launched as part of the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050, which aims to reduce the carbon footprint to become the smallest in the world by that year.

Generically, in sewage treatment plants, the increasingly common use of sludge and water for agricultural purposes reduces the use of fertilizers and thus the carbon footprint.

In our offices and projects, Paperless is an initiative focused on reducing paper use in all our processes.

As you can see, at ACCIONA we are very committed to the environment: we have it in mind in everything we do.