|June 3: Your own hydro power
In Norway conditions for hydro power are so favourable that people have started their own hydro plants. Kjell Knutsen was one of the first. He now runs a business by helping others to do the same.
If you happen to have a lake in your backyard, at best dozens of metres above the lowest point - which is not that unusual in Norway - you're a lucky man. You can produce your own electricity and get independent. Since the mid-nineties, hundreds of Norwegians have done just that.
Knutsen lives in Mydland, at the highest point between Tonstad and Egersund. The whole town is no more than a couple of buildings along the roadside of route 42. Small shrubs, lots of lakes, large boulders and the Gya river running along the road.
One of the buildings, a wooden cabin like many others, houses Knutsen's own power house with a capacity of 300 kilowatts – enough to provide power to 150 households. In fact, it only serves Knutsen and his neighbour, the rest is being fed into the grid.
Knutsen worked as a mechanical engineer at the Sira Kvina hydro power plant at Tonstad, some 13 kilometres to the east. So he knew a thing or two about hydro power. Ten years ago, he found an old derelict grey generator from 1936 some 20 kilometres outside of Bergen. He judged it to be in fine condition and saw his chance. Together with his neighbour, he bought the machine and installed it at his home. The generator needed little maintenance and has been spinning like a sewing machine ever since.
The most expensive part though is not the generator, but the drilling of a hole through the hard granite rock to the lake. In this case, that meant 300 meters of drilling to reach a height difference of 110 meters to the lake Knutsen shares with his neighbour.
At 300 liters per second, the maximal flow, 300 kilowatt of power is produced. At the turn of a button the flow can be reduced with the power falling proportionally.
The payback time depends on the interest rate of the bank, but Knutsen estimates it to be fifteen years.
As said, drilling is the most expensive part of the deal. It costs 500 to 600 euros per meter. Generally the drilling costs amount to 70 percent of the total investment. The rest is for the generator, which, according to Knutsen, doesn't come from the shelf. It will have to be adapted to the particular pressure and flow at a site.
“Many of my friends are doing the same thing”, Knutsen tells us. He started by helping them out, but when it took too much of his time, he decided to go independent, quit his job at Sira Kvina and start his own firm Norhard about three years ago. It offers the service of hard rock drilling.
It was a tough start because of the investments in machinery fit to drill the hard granite and to do so in a controlable way along a predestined trajectory. “We started from the ground”, Knutsen says. “But now we go up”, making a take-off gesture with his right hand.
What hinders the growth of independent hydro power producers at the moment is the long time needed to get the necessary permissions – about four to five years. It comes as no surprise that Knutsen would like to see the legislative delay shortened.
“It's environmentally friendly”, he says. “Look, there are no pipes running down the mountains like before. There is nothing to see.” Indeed, only a short horizontal pipe connects the power house to the rocks behind it. If it were not for the humming noise from the inside, and the sudden appearance of a crystal clear mountain stream ten meters downhill, one would never have guessed the presence of a 300 kilowatt powerplant among these few houses sprinkled in the landscape.