Sulaymaniyah 1,500-MW Combined-Cycle Power Plant
Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq
Best Project

Owner Mass Group Holding Ltd.
Lead Design Firm Bechtel Overseas Corp.
Contractor ENKA Insaat ve Sanayi A.S.
Civil and Structural Engineer ENKA Insaat ve Sanayi A.S.
MEP Engineer Bechtel Overseas Corp.
Owner’s Engineer APPA Consult GmbH
Steam Turbine and Generator Manufacturer General Electric

Fehmi Bayramoglu remembers very well the day of Aug. 6, 2014. Recalls the executive committee member of Turkish general contractor ENKA, “I was on the phone all day with the American Embassy,” the Kurdish Regional Government and General Electric.

As head of the firm’s engineer-construction division, Bayramoglu is responsible for oversight of energy projects. Two of the firm’s most important jobs involved upgrading power plants in the Kurdistan Regional Government region of Iraq, near Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, to combined cycle from simple cycle, increasing the generating efficiency at each plant by 50%, to 1,500 MW.

The situation was tense. ISIS forces had seized Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, and were expanding their reach. While Sulaymaniyah is 140 miles away, Erbil is only 52 miles away. “At one point, ISIS was 200 meters from our work-camp perimeter. Our workers were extremely nervous. We had about 1,500 workers in each camp, and we were determined to protect them,” Bayramoglu says. He chartered 50 buses for each site and, with private security contractors, devised a plan to safely evacuate workers to the north, across the border into Turkey. From the Erbil site, he tried to keep abreast of conditions in the area before giving the go-ahead.

The job should have been routine, since ENKA had been the general contractor for both simple cell plants, beginning construction in 2007-08. The owner, Mass Group Holding Ltd., was pleased with ENKA’s performance. MGH, an independent power producer based in Amman, Jordan, saw business opportunities in Kurdistan after U.S.-led coalition forces ended Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Following the dictator’s fall, the region slowly came to be regarded as the most secure region of Iraq. The road to prosperity has been bumpy, however, owing to the region’s chaotic history. During the final days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Saddam unleashed chemical weapons on the Kurds, who bridled under the Ba’athist regime’s discrimination. Up to 5,000 Kurds, many of them women and children, died at Halabja in an attack on March 16, 1988.

Saddam claimed Iran was behind the attack, but a preponderance of circumstantial evidence pointed to Saddam and his cousin “Chemical Ali” Hassan al-Majid, the commander of Iraqi forces in northern Iraq when the attacks occurred. The post-Saddam Iraqi Special Tribunal convicted al-Majid of war crimes against the Kurds, and he was hanged in 2010. To the disappointment of many Kurds, Saddam was never charged for the Halabja attack. He was hanged in 2006 for ordering a massacre of citizens in the Shiite stronghold Dujail, following an unsuccessful assassination attempt in 1982.

Freed from Saddam’s iron-fisted rule, the Kurds have pushed for independence. (In a nonbinding referendum in late September, 92% of the vote was for independence.)

The KRG, a semiautonomous region with Erbil as its capital, sits atop abundant oil and gas reserves. Security and natural resources, together with the end of sanctions imposed against Saddam’s government, augured well for business development and infrastructure development.

MGH was encouraged by ENKA’s relatively smooth construction of the single-cycle generation plants near Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. The Jordanian owner negotiated a new pair of engineer, procure and construct contracts with its Turkish contractor to convert both facilities to combined-cycle units. Work on the Erbil unit began first, in summer 2012, followed within a year by work at Sulaymaniyah.

At both sites, the project scope called for adding four heat-recovery steam generators powered by the exhaust from the eight steam turbines, which, in turn, power the steam generators. Without adding extra gas or diesel feedstock, the output is increased by 50%, and there is a minor collateral benefit in that emissions are reduced.

ENKA hired Bechtel Overseas Corp. as project design engineer. The relationship was a mutually compatible one, as the firms had collaborated previously as joint venture partners. The U.S. company preferred to work remotely, having had over 50 employees killed in Iraq during 2003-04. Much of the design work was performed in Bechtel offices in Frederick, Md., and in India, says Nitin Gokhale, project engineer, currently based in Bechtel’s Reston, Va., office.

Team members communicated online. “We got pretty good at troubleshooting via the internet, sometimes by exchanging pictures shot on iPhones of site conditions,” Gokhale says. Face-to-face meetings took place at ENKA offices in Istanbul, at MGH headquarters in Amman or in Vienna, where the owner’s engineer APPA is based.

For the design team, Gokhale says, the biggest technical challenges were the distributed control system and configuring interfaces with the electrical grid. “For the DCS, the owner wanted one push-button start-up control,” he says. "That introduced a whole new level of automation than they were used to.”

Synchronizing the plant’s output was more challenging. Demands on the grid are very fluid and sending power to Baghdad over 400-kv lines, required a full bypass on the steam side, says Gokhale. A 132-kv substation is a key component in balancing demand between Kurdistan and Baghdad but blackouts are not uncommon, he adds. While the Erbil and Sulaymaniyah plants help, the system still “needs a good deal of grid improvement,” Gokhale says. 

Sanctions against Saddam’s regime degraded electrical-system infrastructure for all of Iraq, and Kurdistan was no exception. Equipment for the project was imported from 35 countries, says Bayramoglu. The equipment spreadsheet is a global supply chain atlas. Turning on the lights in northern Iraq involved securing components from every corner: steam and heat-recovery generator parts came from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, the U.S, the United Kingdom and Vietnam. Switchgear came from the Czech Republic, Malaysia, Slovakia, Sweden and Turkey. Brazil and Scotland supplied pumps, Finland a condenser, Oman a terrain crane.  Many standard, off-the-shelf materials such as pipes and valves were available from nearby suppliers in Iraq and Turkey.

The work force was also diverse. The contractor built a 140,000-sq-ft work camp, where one could hear conversations in Turkish, different dialects of Kurdish, English and Hindi. “We hired an Indian cook for the camp and built cricket fields,” Bayramoglu says.

Over the years ENKA has developed a reliable source of skilled workers from India. “They are very good,” Bayramoglu says. The Salmaniyah logged three-million worker-hours without a single lost-time incident and “when we looked at near-miss events, we saw that the Indian workers were five times safer than our Turkish workers.”

When ENKA started the $450-million, 37-month project, the contractor  had things well under control: an amicable owner, familiar and expert design engineer, competent and safe work force, good supply chain and a tight but achievable schedule. But outside the jobsite perimeter, conditions were deteriorating in 2014 as ISIS fomented its reign of terror, sweeping eastward from Mosul, raping and killing members of the Yazidi sect and threatening to overrun the jobsite. On Aug. 6, Bayramoglu was ready to pull the plug. But one last round of phone calls convinced him to wait. That night, U.S. air strikes forced ISIS to retreat. ENKA finished the job on time. Kurdistan, including its displaced-person camps, had power.

Related Article: Global Best Projects Awards 2017