Opinion: The role of an alternative fuels project consultant

By Wayne Lee | April 16, 2012

As the CEO of Lee Enterprises Consulting, the world’s largest alternative fuels consulting group, I have the somewhat unique opportunity to see alternative fuels through the many different perspectives of our clients and consultants. I have come to realize that those building plants don’t see their project from the same viewpoints as their lenders or investors, and neither has the same perspective as other project participants. Even within our own consulting group, where each member has a specific expertise but also the comfort of knowing that he or she can lean on the others for advice, it is clear that each of their perspectives are tied to their specialties. Lawyers don’t see a project the same way that accountants, engineers or insurance personnel see it. Grant writers, appraisers, safety and environmental experts all have a perspective from the work they perform within the industry.    

In addition to supervising our group, my role within the group is to serve as a project consultant for some of our clients. That role is somewhat unique since it does require an understanding of everyone’s duties and limitations, and an ability to blend the various perspectives into an integrated project. Not long ago, I was asked by a potential client exactly what a project consultant does. It was in response to that query that this article emerged.

As most experienced industry professionals know, an alternative or renewable fuels project is always a compilation of many smaller projects. While many of these might well be considered separate projects of their own, they are really interdependent since each affects the entire project. As most of us in the business have seen, entire projects have stalled or even failed as a result of problems in just one area, even when all else is progressing nicely. So what is the role of the project consultant in all this? 

The overall objective of a project consultant is to see that a project stays on an established timeline and within budget, and begins producing as quickly and efficiently as possible. They must be a good communicator and facilitator and be able to view things from a whole-project perspective since they will be inevitably called upon to unite all the teams and stakeholders to bring the project to an expeditious completion. They must be objective and of the highest integrity, and have the ability to manage the inevitable changes that occur throughout any project. While coordinating all of the moving pieces within the project, the consultant must keep a keen eye on minimizing cost and scheduling overruns. 

The project consultant will serve the project in many capacities: as its advisor, team leader, facilitator, trainer, expert and developer. Thus, they must be knowledgeable in the industry and have a good understanding of how and when each activity should be completed and fits in with the other activities. A good project consultant will have proven experience and will be ready to bridge communication between owners, lenders and project participants. Having seen the processes many times before, they should also be able to bring best practices to the project. A critical area, often overlooked, is that the project consultant must have a willingness to teach and to transfer their knowledge since the ultimate goal is to have the project operate without them. A recent study of almost 300 companies indicated that more than 65 percent had used a consultant on their projects. The vast majority were very pleased with the experience, rating their experience as excellent or very good. 

My own project consulting is a compilation of all these things. Generally, I get to know the project inside and out, and I am involved in strategy and operational planning with the project participants. I am always on the lookout for potential problem areas to insure that our clients receive the best products and services at the best prices—whether from consultants within or outside our group. Where possible, I stay in regular contact with the EPC contractors who are responsible for building, installing and commissioning the physical facility, since I will likely be involved in securing and/or coordinating the many ancillary items that impact them: feedstock, offtake, insurance, accounting, legal, registrations, EMTS, EPA, staffing, safety training, PSM, etc. My hope is that I can keep things coordinated and flowing smoothly, and that my industry contacts and knowledge help the client save time and money. What we all want to see is a plant that can reproduce a good product hour after hour, day after day.  

I have found that owners, managers, investors, lenders and other project participants all seem to have a higher comfort level knowing that an experienced project consultant is onboard. Undoubtedly, good project consulting involves significant amounts of time and money. Given the cost of the project and the risks involved, however, it is probably one of the project’s best investment decisions. And, I would like to think that as I finish each project, my knowledge has helped saved the client more money than they have invested in me. I have found the most effective method in minimizing costly mistakes is to begin a project consulting engagement as early in the project as possible, and to stay with it until the plant is commissioned and operating at peak efficiency. Likewise, I understand that financial planning is critical for developments and owners, and thus my project consulting always offers a payment plan that allows the option of paying fixed amounts monthly over the entire consulting period. This seems to provide for better financial planning while insuring that the project will have its consultant through the time when it needs them the most.

Returning to the original question: Is there an easy answer as to what the project consultant does? My best answer borrows from my training in scuba diving: I help a client “plan their dive and then dive their plan.”


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