‘This is the brain of the power station’, said Örjan Karlsson, head of maintenance at Skellefteå Kraft’s Finnfors hydro-power plant in northern Sweden.
He pointed to a 1990s clunky computer of the type we had all forgotten. It seemed extraordinary that this whole operation should rely on this one, ancient, piece of equipment whose parts are now obsolete. ‘If it fails,’ said Örjan, ‘we have to use people’. The finance department seemed not to appreciate the size of the problem.
I was on a field trip, following the European conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, in Umeå last September (see earlier blogs). We had a tour of the power station which was built in 1906, as portrayed on a mural in the station.
The art nouveau influence is still visible in these cobweb-like windows.
There are 15 power stations on the 400-km-long river Skellefteälven, hydro power being an extremely important energy source for Sweden. Skellefteå Kraft is a public company and the public benefits twice, from a share in the profits and from discounted energy.
We all donned hard hats for the tour. First we went inside the power plant, then out onto the floodgates.
These are heated in winter so that they can be opened even when the river is frozen. Every third Sunday in June there is a special event with a marching band. All four floodgates are opened to release the river. Last summer was warm and the river is lower than usual, which will make electricity more expensive this winter. Our discussion about ice soon led to a debate about the relative merits of ice-hockey teams!
Let there be light
We were given a book about the history of the power plant, entirely in Swedish, called Varde ljus (Let there be light). The illustrations give a flavour of the immensity of the project. With Google’s help I translated the captions.
Örjan and Håkan Marklund (the plant’s maintenance engineer) told me that the culture of the company has changed. There are broadly two groups of employees: economists and technicians. The technicians used to work up through the ranks from the shop floor and understood how the system worked. Now the people at the top have come from a different background, they don’t have a feel for the operation and are constantly asking questions.
Sad, but no doubt all too common in industry today.