Swedish Trout Stall Replacing Nuclear in Kafkaesque Court Case

  • Migrating fish holding up Fortum's hydroplant upgrade
  • Hydro needed to meet power demand as atomic reactors close

The protection of migrating trout near a Swedish hydropower plant has turned into a long-running court case that may shape how utilities plan for a future without nuclear power.

Fortum Oyj wants to boost the capacity of the plant in central Sweden by replacing its century-old turbines. Finland’s biggest utility has spent a decade trying to convince local leaders, environment officials and national courts of the merits of the 450 million kronor ($53 million) plan. Fortum calls the whole situation “Kafkaesque,” after the author known for themes of bureaucratic dystopia.

Turbine hall at the Ultra Hydroelectric power station

Photographer: Johan Jeppsson/Bloomberg

The case signals what lies ahead for utilities from Vattenfall AB to EON SE seeking alternative low-emission power sources in Sweden to replace reactors they’re closing early because they aren’t profitable anymore. Environmental demands are holding up projects outside Sweden too, such as a new coal plant in Germany and the expansion of the nation’s power network, while Polish lawmakers are proposing restrictions on new wind parks.

“There is a lot of old technology in these hydro plants, several decades, or even hundred-year-old machines that absolutely must be upgraded,” Pekka Lundmark, Fortum’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. “A lot of extra capacity could be added from hydro power if investments are allowed.”

While Sweden has more than 2,000 hydro plants, some are more than 130 years old and face an uncertain future under laws planned for later this year to comply with European Union environmental rules.

On a cloudy morning at the end of January, Fortum’s Untra plant looks more like a museum than a power station, with a decorated brick facade and a lavish interior that includes a fountain in the turbine hall. Built in 1918 to supply Stockholm 140 kilometers (87 miles) to the south, three of its original five turbines still generate power, though water seeping through the concrete wall toward the dam shows where some of the money will be spent.

Fortum isn’t the only utility struggling. After a four-year legal battle, EON in 2013 scrapped a plan to upgrade a station built in 1917 on Sweden’s east coast. A smaller renovation with a less cumbersome permit process was completed last year, said Jonas Anden, a company spokesman. Jaemtkraft AB is still awaiting a supreme court decision to rebuild a 98-year-old dam that burst in 2010, according to spokeswoman Karin Boden.

Antiquated operating controls

Photographer: Johan Jeppsson/Bloomberg

“Hydro power is an incredibly important part of what will become the long-term renewable system in Sweden,” Vattenfall’s Chief Executive Officer Magnus Hall said in an interview. “It would be very unfortunate if it ended up in a position where it couldn’t be fully utilized.”

Outside of Sweden, EON has battled since 2009 for regional government approval to build the Datteln-4 coal plant in Germany, which would be the nation’s biggest combined heat and power station. Local protests have also bogged down plans to expand the nation’s high-capacity grid. Poland is considering laws for wind farms that impose new fees, restrict placement of new turbines and require permit renewals every two years.

System’s backbone

Hydro stations provide about half of Sweden’s electricity and are the backbone of its 98 percent fossil fuel-free power network. Its importance will only increase as the country seeks to replace the output of at least four reactors closing by 2020. Reactors account for 34 percent today, but profitability eroded with wholesale prices at their lowest since 2003.

Fortum wants to increase Untra’s output by 13 percent to 306 gigawatt-hours a year, enough to supply the 73,000 inhabitants of Gaevle, a neighboring town. The upgrade also involves a redesign allowing spawning trout and salmon to swim past the station for the first time in almost 100 years.

Fortum’s Ultra hydroelectric power station

Photographer: Johan Jeppsson/Bloomberg

Untra is the third hydroelectric station that fish meet swimming up the Dalaelven river from the Baltic Sea. Today, most of them get stuck in an old logging chute next to the main dam. Even with Fortum’s plan for a new fish ladder, environmentalists are unconvinced that old plants can be rebuilt without harming the local ecology.

Sweden’s Environment Court of Appeal rejected the refurbishment in 2013 because of the potential environmental impact from draining the facility’s dam for the project, even though Fortum is still allowed to empty the reservoir for maintenance. The company then applied to rebuild the old station in June last year, a court process that is still going on.

Strengthening the dam is necessary and the planned fish ladder will have a positive impact on the ecological system, said Jens Bjoeoern, a Fortum spokesman in Stockholm.

Sport Fishers

Recreational anglers are also opposing the plan. Many unique strains of salmon and trout were extinct when hydro was introduced because it made it impossible for them to reproduce, said Torkel Blomqvist, legal counsel at Sweden’s Sport Fishers Association.

“We aren’t against hydropower in itself, but there are thousands of small power plants that hardly produce anything that cause the most damage,” he said.

So far, national political interest in Sweden for modernizing hydro plants has been low, leaving local authorities to make decisions that can vary depending on which court tries the case.

“The current court process is a lottery,” Erik Brandsma, the general director for the Swedish Energy Agency, said by e-mail. “If nothing is done to remove these insecurities, investment will stop.”

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