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Powering the Olympics

Infrastructure was one of the big success stories of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Antony Oliver speaks to global infrastructure technology firm GE director Tony Gale about the challenge of keeping the power on.

Earlier this month we gazed in wonder, first at the London 2012 opening ceremony, then across the venues at the marvels of sporting and athletic excellence, to finally, after saturation Olympic coverage, we took in the spectacular closing ceremony.

We marvelled at the stadium, the Velodrome, the Aquatic Centre and a multitude of other permanent and temporary venues across the Olympic Park and across the UK.

And we celebrated, en masse, the human stories of achievement beyond expectation, personal pain and sacrifice and team joy and despair as the Games unfolded.

People see the Olympics and imagine that it has just been ‘magicked’ into position overnight

Yet few gave much thought to the huge amount of planning, preparation and sheer effort that went into ensuring that every step of the way.

The power stayed on across the Olympic Park, its temporary and permanent venues, catering facilities and video screens and lighting towers.

“People see the Olympics and imagine that it has just been ‘magicked’ into position overnight,” says GE director of commercial operations for infrastructure, Tony Gale. “What people don’t realise is the complexity. There have been so many people working in parallel to make it happen - I have never seen anything like it in my life.”

Five year plan

GE is the official global Olympic Games partner providing power infrastructure and healthcare facilities under a rolling contract which has stretched back four Games and commits it to the event until 2020. For the last five years Gale has run a small team charged with implementing GE’s commitment. That has seen him work closely first with the Olympic Delivery Authority as it created the venues then with the London Organising Comittee for the Olympic Games as it prepared to run the Games.

Working within a complex contractual web of multiple supply chains, rapidly changing venue requirements, and with a huge emphasis on long term legacy and an unmoveable deadline, Gale has spearheaded his team to what can only be described as Olympic gold.

“For me the key challenge was doing so much with a small team,” he explains. “We have registered something like 175 different projects. It’s stuff that nobody ever sees but it’s vital.

Across the park, for example, GE installed over 3,000 uninterruptible power supply systems which, together with a rake of temporary power generation kit supplied by Aggreco, ensured that the lights and power stayed on without fail.

Combined heat and power

“My part of the opening ceremony was that the power didn’t go out,” he says.

Of course, once the Olympics and Paralympic Games wind down, much of this kit will be removed, relocated or recycled as the park assumes its legacy configuration.

However, Gale’s teams were also responsible for the newly constructed Energy Centre which, with its gas powered Jenbacher engines, will continue to provide the combined heat and power cornerstone to the park’s energy needs. Although the original biofuel plans were mothballed and all the power is exported to the grid, Gale insists that the localised energy centre is a key Games legacy.

“The innovation and the legacy is the recognition that decentralised energy will be the gap filler until whatever we do in the future with centralised power generation,” says Gale.

Eventually the biofuel handling infrastructure will also be added to create a truly decentralised power legacy for the park.

We have lit one of the most iconic buildings in the world and the legacy is that it is there for 25 years

One of the other key legacies, according to Gale, is the lessons learnt across London about bringing innovative infrastructure ideas into play much faster than would have been possible.

As such Gale’s work has not been confined to just supporting the Olympic venues. Across London, GE has installed 120 new electric vehicle charging points as part of the support to official vehicle supplier BMW’s electric vehicle fleet.

Then there’s the spectacular reworking of Tower Bridge’s lighting system. “We have lit one of the most iconic buildings in the world and the legacy is that it is there for 25 years,” he says, highlighting the use of a rope diode lighting system.

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