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The Importance of Cranes in Construction

Operating in tough conditions, enjoying the work

An STG crew prepares to set a 59,000 lb. wind turbine generator atop one of the 75-meter towers the company installed for Kotzebue Electric Association in 2012.

An STG crew prepares to set a 59,000 lb. wind turbine generator atop one of the 75-meter towers the company installed for Kotzebue Electric Association in 2012.

Photo by Jason Sellars, STG Incorporated

Operating a crane is precise work. The person at the controls wields a lot of power, swinging heavy items into place while a crew on the ground assists. A small mistake could mean costly property damage and even, in a small number of cases, lost lives.

In Alaska, the job is even more complicated. Operators sometimes work where there are no roads and in weather few other crane operators see—blowing snow, bristling winds, below-zero temperatures and freezing sea spray.

STG Incorporated, a construction services company operating in Alaska since 1991, knows a lot about operating in tough conditions. Owner Jim St. George says the company got its start repairing failing tank farms in Alaska villages. Installing tanks and driving piles in villages around Alaska are still a large part of the company’s work, jobs that are assisted by a fleet of 23 cranes.  

 

Utilizing the company’s Kobelco CK2500 II crawler crane, Alaska Crane prepares to set a pedestrian bridge at Ship Creek in 2009.  

Photo courtesy of STG Incorporated

A Handful Out of Hundreds

St. George says the company began using cranes because it made STG more competitive.

In 1996, STG opened an office in Anchorage and he purchased Alaska Crane in 2001, an Anchorage-based crane services company. As STG and Alaska Crane’s workload expanded he bought more cranes, sending some to western Alaska to assist in contracts there.

“Alaska Crane is more of a traditional crane service company while STG’s utilization of cranes is more geared to the completion of construction projects requiring their use,” St. George says.

Today Alaska Crane is one of the largest crane services companies in the state. But St. George says there are plenty of other cranes at work here—hundreds, perhaps. From oil field services to ports and construction sites, cranes are picking loads all over Alaska.

“No one does exactly what we do, but everyone does a part of what we do,” he says. “Some people do more port (work), some do more steel, some drive more piles. We do a mix and we focus pretty hard on construction.”

St. George says he’s adept at operating cranes but his most recent acquisition, a Liebherr LR1600/2 crawler crane, is more crane than he’s comfortable operating. It’s an enormous machine, currently the largest mobile crane operating in Alaska.

According to information from the German manufacturer Liebherr, the boom is geared specifically for erecting wind turbines. It can lift 660 tons and operates with a very sophisticated network of computerized sensors. It’s a big machine, but perhaps safer than older styles of crane, St. George says.

“Years ago, you operated the crane by the seat of your pants and felt what it was doing. If you picked too much, it would start to tip,” he says. “The newer cranes … are much more controllable and much safer. The evolution of cranes is really toward a safer machine.”

STG’s Liebherr LR 1600/2, a 660-ton capacity crawler crane, was assembled on Fire Island last summer. 

Photo by Riley Hyce, Carlile Transportation Systems

Alaska Crane sets bridge components for Granite Construction with a 250-ton Kobelco crawler crane on a 2009 project outside Tok.  

Photo courtesy of STG Incorporated

Powering Rural and Urban Alaska

These days, another part of his business has captured St. George’s interest—installing wind turbines for utility companies around the state.

“Some of us (at STG) feel pretty strongly about renewable energy, that it’s a good thing in the long term. We like to get involved in these projects, and we feel pretty good about the wind work we’ve done,” St. George says.

The company has installed around 80 percent of the utility-scale wind projects currently in operation in Alaska, St. George says. Some of the communities they’ve worked in hold the distinction of having some of the highest energy prices in the nation. Wind power is helping reduce reliance on diesel and ultimately cutting energy costs for residents who pay nearly 50 percent of their household income on energy.

“It’s made a really big impact out there (in rural Alaska) and we feel pretty good about that,” he says.

STG was the contractor for Kotzebue Electric Association last year when it installed two direct-drive EWT turbines, each 75 meters tall, with a 900kw generating capacity.

Kotzebue Electric Association project engineer Matt Bergan says the utility has 19 turbines operating today, 17 with smaller generating capacity and the two STG helped install last year. At peak wind times, about 75 percent of the utility’s power comes from wind. He says the utility hopes to expand its wind generating capacity and displace as much fuel as possible.

That job was complicated by the remote nature of the work. Kotzebue only has one dock and Bergan says due to the size and weight of the pieces, they couldn’t be hauled through town. So STG and Northland Services landed a barge on a beach near the wind turbine site and offloaded a crane and the turbine parts there.

The challenges didn’t stop when the parts were unloaded, says project manager Brennan Walsh. STG installed the bases for the turbines in 2011, then built an ice road in spring 2012 to move the large pieces over the tundra without doing permanent damage to the ground.

“The Kotzebue project was unique in the fact that you’re dealing with some pretty sensitive geotechnical issues up there, with permafrost. It’s cold permafrost but if you have any disturbance to the ground, the results are noticeable.”

The ice road was wide enough for the company to walk a 250-ton Kobelco CK2500 Series 2 hydraulic crane out to the site, along with the heavy turbine parts that had been offloaded onto the beach. It was time to erect the turbines, even though winter was still gripping the region.

“It was pretty exciting. It was single digits (outside) and everything was cold and hard. We had to make sure all of the equipment was warmed up well in advance of any of the picks,” Walsh says. “We really had to pay attention to the weather; wind can add significant loading to the crane. And once it gets that cold and you start putting heavy weights on stuff, your rigging and shackles can freeze up. If you get a pick and put it into place and then try to cut the load loose, sometimes your shackles freeze.”

STG worked through the challenges, Bergan says, and did such a great job he hopes to work with them again in the future.

“They have a broad wealth of experience in rural logistics, winter construction, just about everything. They seek out unique solutions to difficult problems,” he says. “We have a very high opinion of them after this project.”

The company also worked with CIRI this year to install the eleven GE turbines, each with a generating capacity of 1.6 megawatts, now generating electricity on Fire Island, just off Anchorage’s shore.

St. George says the company was a subcontractor to Tetra Tech, which was the general contractor on the Fire Island wind project. The company used the Liebherr LR1600/2 crawler crane along with four others on that job.

The company had been talking with CIRI officials for a number of years about the project, St. George says, and was excited to be part of the team that completed the work.

“There’s some gratification in being able to see a project,” St. George says. “I can see Fire Island from my home.”

 

STG raises a blade set for one of the 11 turbines installed on Fire Island last summer, using their Liebherr LR 1600/2 crawler crane.

Photo by Oscar Edwin Avellaneda, courtesy of CIRI Inc.

 

Completed in 2009, STG installed approximately 350 piles for the foundation of Barrow’s new hospital.

Photo courtesy of STG Incorporated

A Resource for Cold-Weather Crane Use

Many of the cranes Alaska Crane and STG use are Kobelco machines. According to information from the company, it’s the largest crawler crane manufacturer in the world and is a subsidiary of Kobe Steel, a large multinational corporation.

St. George has had the opportunity to visit the Kobelco headquarters in Houston, Texas, and its manufacturing facility in Japan.

“They make a tough, durable crane and have been good for us. They’ve given us an advantage with their versatility,” St. George says.

Jack Fendrick, president of Kobelco Cranes North America says STG has also helped Kobelco improve its machines.

“A crane working 500 miles from the nearest road, in sub-zero degree weather that can only be accessed by barge or plane, is a unique (once in a lifetime) situation for most contractors. This is a normal day for STG,” Fendrick says by email.

“When we started working with Jim St. George to provide cranes for his multiple projects in Alaska we had no idea what a valuable resource his organization would be for our engineering, logistics and design team. The unique environment and projects that STG works in or on has provided information that makes our products better,” he says.

St. George says Kobelco has been a very responsive manufacturer. When he visited the factory, he says, the company was building a larger crane and he and others who were touring the facility at the time were able to have input in the process.

“We were able to be in on the ground floor and when you see it come out a year or two later, your ideas are reality,” he says.

The largest area where STG has contributed, however, has been in cold weather operations.

“We’ve said we need heaters here or there, or that their computers are a little temperature sensitive. They’ve modified or dealt with that so the cold doesn’t bother them as much,” St. George says.

But for him, the personal relationships he developed with Kobelco and other companies are what make being in business worthwhile.

“The fun of business is, if you enjoy who you’re working with, you get something out of that, too. There’s a personal side that’s really enjoyable,” he says.

Rindi White is a freelance journalist living in Palmer.

This originally appeared in the March 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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