Interview with PACWorld guru Mohammed Behabid

PAC World: When and where were you born?
M.B: I was born in a farm about 300 km east of Algiers on February 12, 1940. I am 74 years old.

PAC World: Where did you go to school and did you have any special interests while there?
M.B.: There was no school in the farm where I grew up or in the neighboring settlements. We had to reach a large village called at the time Lafayette and now Bougaa in Wilaya de Setif. (300 km east of Algiers). My father had the clever idea to move his four sons together with our nanny and to rent a small house in this village. Obviously, there was no electricity, no running water, no ceiling under the roof tiles or bathroom. Today this looks ridiculous, but then this was almost normal. We accommodated ourselves. The essential for us was to be able to go to school. After six years of primary school, I was able to pass the entrance exam in the 6th grade (first year junior). What is now a mere formality, was an outstanding success. There were very few colleges or high schools in the country and they accepted only one or two students per village. This means that in our time this exam was a real dream and psychologically speaking had the value of the present baccalaureate.

PAC World: What was the next level that you could take in your education?
M.B.: I did two years in college in Bordj Bou Arreridj (70 Km from Lafayette), which were very hard for me and my family. Fortunately, after this period, I was able to pass the exam for the 4 year technical college in Constantine. The college gave me a state scholarship which relieved us of all logistics related to my accommodation and expenses. I graduated with “Brevet d’Enseignement Industriel” (BEI) in electricity. It was the end of my education, since in Algeria at this time there was no higher level.

PAC World: Is there something special that you remember related to your college years?
M.B.: Yes, just before the end of my last year I was called by the director who gave me the best news of my life. I was declared the top student of my class and I was rewarded with a trip to the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960. That was amazing. It was also a chance to continue my studies in France. A natural continuation of my degree was my enrolment in a course of Technician in the electro technical field. We could not imagine with our limited resources, to pay for a trip to attempt an exam, without any certainty of success. I sent applications to several schools. A few days before my departure by boat from Algiers, I got an invitation to take this exam at the Technical lyceum of Bordeaux.

PAC World: After finishing college in Algeria you continued your education in France. How did that happen?
M.B.: After the Olympics, the travel agency agreed to release me in Marseille before returning to Algeria. Thus, I reached Bordeaux, took the exam and passed it. The following two years of education were covered financially by a scholarship. The hardest was the adjustment to the courses which I found very difficult. First, the level of Constantine was far lower than the current one, and then, most students had already completed a preparatory year. Only my seriousness and determination helped me to not give up. Getting out was limited to a minimum and I almost never slept before 2 am to compensate the great handicap. In the third quarter of the first year, I was already at the top. The exam took place in June 1962 and I passed it. I returned home on June 30 and participated in the great jubilation of the country's independence in Algiers.

PAC World: How did you start your professional career?
M.B: I started my career in 1962 with Electricity and Gas Algeria (EGA), now, since 1969 the National Company of Electricity and Gas (SONELGAZ ) without leaving until I retired in1998 , after 35 years of activity.

PAC World: What challenges did you face at the beginning of your career?
M.B: They assigned me to a group of 4 hydro power plants, headquartered in Darguinah. My position was plant manager of one of them, called Ziama Mansouriah. Although it was the most powerful plant, it had never run. It was finished a long time ago, but the water gallery bringing water from Erraguene, 18 km in the mountains, was delivered only a few days before the independence. This plant was completely underground and located inside and at the edge of a mountain that plunges directly into the sea. With the French departure, it remained in a state of abandonment.
At this time, it was the massive departure of the French, and I was lucky that a French engineer was kind enough to teach me everything about the operating side.

There was very little time left, in which I had to learn as much as possible. I stayed with him only an afternoon and one night. In a notebook, I wrote notes about all the applications that I was supposed to do and how to do them. The dangers of our profession are enormous and a false move can cost us lives, huge damage and a breakdown of the entire network.
After this first step of my professional life, I took my new post in a Power Plant. Our task was to try to prepare for its first commissioning. With the high humidity, all plant equipment, especially electrical components were sulfated. Even the auxiliary did not work for long and everything had to start from scratch. One of the worst things during that time was the noise from the tripping of the 150 kV breakers in the closed environment. Working without any protection the noise damaged my ears. That is why today I need to use a hearing aid device.

After it was discovered that the plant could not be energized due to water leaks and given the critical lack of competence in all areas, I was transferred to Kherrata (another plant in the group), as plant manager to replace a French person who had left. It is a plant at the foot of a dam which had been running since 1954, with 2 groups of 12 MVA each at full capacity. Here began the real responsibility because unlike Ziama, this power plant worked. There were problems of any kind: electrical, water, pressure, mechanical, manpower management and patrimony.

PAC World: Was there any event during your time at the plant that you will never forget?
M.B.: In this plant I almost lost my life. They called me at midnight to tell me that despite closing the water valve, the generator continued to rotate. Of course this is an anomaly. After a few more questions, I could only assume that the 60 kV circuit breaker remained closed and the generator was currently operating as a motor.

When I arrived on site, I found that the electrical circuit breaker was faulty. As the cell is turned on and you cannot access the CB, I used a long pole to aim at the emergency button on the front of the control box placed just 2 meters off the fence. I opened the circuit breaker and the generator stopped. We had to repair it during day time.

But the next day, instead of ensuring the adequate switch off of the cell, I forgot that that night, I did not open the disconnector switch that would isolate the CB and here I go directly to the operation of grounding of the 60,000 Volts bars. Fortunately, grounding work had been done as it should be. Through the pole, wanting to secure the braid bar on 60 kV, so I put 60,000 volts directly to ground. There was a big flash in the cell. Fortunately, I was not affected by electrical wave nor arc.
Of course, I was very scared. First by having risked electrocution by a voltage that does not forgive, and then by the fear of punishment that could follow. Fortunately, we put it down to inexperience and there was no fault. We were young, without experience, in a dangerous work environment. But whenever we met officials, they did not stop to remind us of the challenge, because the French said that without them, the candle will replace electricity. We surpassed ourselves and the sacrifice was worth it.

PAC World: When and how did you learn about power system protection?
M.B.: I have not studied at any time network protections, so the documentation and training from the manufacturers were very helpful. Also many internships at EDF were personally very productive. But above all, it was mainly the interest that one attaches to his work. My manager was a French gentleman by the name of Piron. He was old enough, highly esteemed and respected by everyone. Professionally, he was also a man of great value, very knowledgeable, very serious, fair and authoritative.

PAC World: How did you continue your career?
M.B: I continued in the Central Electrical Control as Deputy Head of the Department. We were 17 agents all working together as functional and operational. We were in charge of all high voltage substations and hydro power plants.
In the four Transmission of Electricity regions, three or four electric control agents depended on the services of the region, and had only marginal activity. They received from us the main instructions. It was then that I started driving to cover almost all of Northern country. I have worked in almost all the substations. Protections lines, cables, transformers, generators, are very critical when considering the quality of service, and it may be considered as failed due to a lack of functioning, as well as that of undesired operation.

Because we were faced with multiple challenges, such as the condition of facilities without marks or schemes up to date, the continued operation of the bays for the duration of the work and the fear of its unwanted tripping, the lack of appropriate materials, the electrical control agents under my supervision quickly adapted to this new task despite their inexperience. It was a school for all services of the company.

PAC World: What technology did you use to determine the fault currents in the Algerian power system?
M.B.: What I must not forget, is the implementation of the system model. In 1969, the manager who replaced Mr. Piron, while traveling at EDF in Lille, became aware of the system model used to determine fault currents on the HV lines. He was very much interested. Myself, during an internship at this entity, I researched the way to build one, and once back, the project was initiated. It is DC, and only the reactance of the equipment is taken into account. I gave this clarification, knowing that in Paris, there was a model with alternating current, much more effective, taking into account the strengths and capabilities of machines and connections. But this was enough for us.

We had to order equipment and to collect the necessary information for calculating and determining the components. The realization lasted 3 years. It was wonderful to have with few manipulations, the single or three phase current on any busbar of the network. You could also get the positive or residual current on any line; this second point concerning the knowledge of the fault current fed by a line for a failure is very complex to determine by calculation. The entire transmission network was represented on a wall of about 20 m2. Unfortunately, our efforts were not rewarded as expected, because soon after, computer technology replaced this model.

In 1971 I was promoted to Class 10, at the time that was the executive category. My title was Assistant Service Chief Engineer. I waited for a long time for this category because it was almost impossible to pass from “haute Maîtrise” (technical level) to management. I believed for the time that I was the exception. That was especially the answer to my professional qualifications recognized by the results in the field and by the officials I met every morning when dispatching daily briefing.

Since the death of Mr. Piron in 1968, and although he has been replaced by an Algerian engineer, it was agreed that I should attend this meetings to help analyze network operation and try to find solutions to the anomalies. Moreover, I was responsible for preparing reports of exceptional incidents. The most accurate analysis possible was requested. The electrical protections are the guarantee of a good network behavior and at this point I had no equivalent. Since 1976, I was promoted to the position of head of service. Then, due to a restructuring of the organization, my service became a Department and I continued to be the head of this organization.

PAC World: What changes did you observe in the development of the Algerian power system?
M.B.: In 1977 my management gave me some new recruits before assigning them to their final position. This preliminary allocation allowed them to be more assertive before taking their true position. They all ended up occupying high positions in the corporate hierarchy.
Between 1976 and 1977, I developed the principles for the high voltage transmission network. Until now, these principles are still in force; of course the technology has evolved in the meantime from the electromechanical to electronic and digital. I am very proud of this.

PAC World: How did you deal with disturbances in the Algerian power system?
M.B.: Those are exceptional cases, which happen rarely. Restarting power plants and orderly supplying customers then becomes problematic. The blackout can last several hours. The whole country is immobilized without electricity since everything is at a standstill. This event is considered very serious and it does not go unnoticed. Every effort is made to determine the causes of the incident to prevent it from happening again. The last general blackout was in 2003. It revealed shortcomings in the protection of the power plants. It was necessary to conduct an audit to determine the effect of faults and how to fix it. I had the honor of being selected to analyze the behavior of the 15 largest power plants in the country.
Accompanied by three engineers, I spent six months traveling across the country studying the different power plants. I prepared a report for each one that I discussed with the DGA operation of the business. I issued many recommendations and I hosted a 3-day conference, attended by the heads of power plants, and power plant operations, and several technical officials from the central services. Almost all of the recommendations were accepted.

PAC World: How do you share your experience with the young engineers in Algeria?
M.B.: In 1986 I started writing about my work and I wrote a book "Protection of the electrical transmission grid at SONELGAZ." The book was very well accepted and I decided to offer it outside Sonelgaz, and for students. The academic publications (OPU) found the work excellent and published it in 5,000 copies. This is the first book that comes from the national power industry and so far the only one.

PAC World: What was the highest position that you reached in your career?
M.B.: In 1988 I was promoted to the position of Deputy Director of Transmission of Electricity, where I worked for 8 years. Actually this is the pinnacle of my career.


PAC World: Have you participated in CIGRE or other international organizations activities?
M.B.: To say what impressed me the most in my career, once in England in Portsmouth, during a session of CIGRE, which focused on digital protections, I made a spontaneous speech before an audience of at least 1,500 scientists from more developed countries. My involvement was really liked and just after the session; a lot of engineers who knew me came to congratulate me.

PAC World: What other challenges did you face?
M.B.: Since 1992 it become a real nightmare for me and all the agents on the grid. Political terrorism settled in Algeria and established a real disaster. As electricity is the lifeblood of any business, it becomes a prime target for those who want to harm the country. The transmission network that crosses all regions of the north was undergoing multiple and continuous sabotages. Only the determination and courage of responsible agents was able to resist this.
So it was with relief that in 1995, I was transferred to another position as advisor to the Director. Responsibility was not the same, the stress was much lower. This allowed me, among other things, to write "The History of electrification in Algeria," where I describe the main stages of technological development of electricity from 1910 to 1995.

PAC World: When did you finish your official career in the Algerian power company?
M.B.: I retired in1998 enjoying the statute authorizing the retirement with full pension after 32 years of service.

PAC World: Have you received any government awards?
M.B.: During my career I was awarded four medals of merit.

PAC World: So what did you do after retiring?
M.B.: In May 1998, I founded my company EURL COMATEL. I worked mostly with Sonelgaz and foreign companies (AREVA, ALSTOM, EFACEC, ABB).

PAC World: Can you tell us something about your family?
M.B.: I have been married for more than 50 years. With my wife, we've always been together, for better or worse. She gave birth to seven girls. They are all married and two of them live in Canada.
I have been a grandfather 14 times and I hope to be 15 times in April, 9 boys and 5 girls.

PAC World: What do you like to do when not doing technical work?
M.B: In leisure, I just finished writing a script of 219 pages that I titled "A JOURNEY, SOME LANDMARKS”. It's a little of my biography mixed with a little bit of everything. There are also the French classic books, newspapers and TV, especially documentaries and sports.

PAC World: What are your guiding principles in life?
M.B.: To talk about my character, I cannot live in adversity. My pleasures are simple. I have no friend but I am comrade to everyone. My family is everything to me.

PAC World: What is your favorite form of entertainment?
M.B.: My pleasures are simple. When there is a football game on TV, especially when the team I support is winning, it's almost ecstasy. The rest is reading or watching subtitled documentaries. I frequently host or visit my daughters. Their husbands are magnificent which makes me forget that I did not have a boy. With my grandchildren I'm in heaven.

PAC World: What kind of food do you like?
M.B.: My favorite food is meat. Cooked in any way - stewed, or roasted or grilled over charcoal. I eat halal.

PAC World: What advice would you give to the young engineers in our field?
M.B.: This is a difficult question. The circumstances have changed enormously and whatever I would say, would feel obsolete. It is still clear that protection is a tool to the service to the Network. Consequently, it is imperative to know the best way possible the Network, its behavior and especially how to analyze disturbances.
The engineer with the most advanced knowledge of generators, transformers, tie lines will become the most accomplished one.

PAC World: Do you have a motto?
M.B.: Whether you are big or small, who cares! The key is to be yourself.

Let?s start with organization in protection testing