Hidden deep in the wintery forests of Helgeland, nestled away from public roads at the foot of the North Norwegian peeks, sits a lone building of glass, stone and wood. At night, lights from within this curious structure glow magenta and blue, reflecting off the falling waters of the Forsland river and the crisp surrounding snow.
This is Øvre Forsland Kraftverk – the Upper Forsland hydro-power plant, one of 12 owned, developed and run by the region’s sole energy providers, Helgeland Kraft.
Upper Forsland Power-plant could easily be mistaken for an art installation. It is both at odds with its surroundings and yet in harmony with them – a modern anomaly in a wild setting, yet one that has been designed to not only leave its surroundings unspoiled, but to work with them to enhance the natural beauty of its location.
Helgeland is the southern-most district of Northern Norway, just south of the Arctic Circle – a province with a small population but many visitors who travel to hike and explore its rugged, striking landscapes. Helgeland Kraft’s hydro-power plants generate 90% of the area’s power, providing electricity to 54,950 homes purely from renewable energy, with an additional 35% of their revenue coming from the supply of power to homes further afield.
In 2008, Helgeland Kraft commissioned the design of several new plants briefed to not only meet a high standard of sustainability, clean production and low environmental impact, but to also suit their surroundings. Øvre Forsland was the first of these plants to be completed, in 2015, with the remaining plants expected to be finished between now and 2018.
Helgeland Kraft commissioned architects Stein Hamre Arkitektkontor to design the Upper Forsland plant. The firm took inspiration from the facility’s surroundings, creating the building from glass, slate and local stone that blend with the rock-face that cradles it. The windows and facade are cut in irregular shapes that mimic trees and these nearby peaks, created using a wood that will gradually develop a soft grey pigment as it interacts with the elements. The wood is produced by Kebony, a local company; its durability and low-maintenance mean it lends itself to use in remote locations, and thus diverts demand away from endangered tropical forests.
Upper Forsland was commissioned for two reasons – firstly and most importantly, to provide clean hydro-power to the local area. Norway is a world leader in green energy; the Dutch government actively promote the development of a variety of green solutions, but hydropower is by far the dominant industry, generating 80% of the country’s electricity.
Hydropower is cheaper than many other sources of power and Helgeland Kraft is able to pass on the savings to the homes they supply in the form of a lower energy bill. However, unlike some power sources, hydro-power is of course affected by the weather. In heavy rainfall or icy conditions, the volume of electricity produced can rise or fall, causing costs to fall and rise in response. Helgeland Kraft are careful to monitor these conditions daily, looking always for the cheapest way to meet supply demand using only green energy sources. However, even taking these price fluctuations into account, the cost of energy is a fraction of that paid for oil and gas-fired energy, making hydropower both a more affordable and sustainable solution, both in the short-term and, for the environment, the long-term too.
Helgeland Kraft’s goal is “to improve the security of supply and provide increased value in Helgeland.” – a mission which Helgeland, having spent hundreds of millions in recent years, is dedicated to upholding.
The future of clean energy supply is a motivation behind Upper Forsland’s second purpose as well: education. The plant’s striking appearance was not only designed out of respect for the aesthetics of its location, but also in the hope that the plant will gain media attention and draw the gaze of the public eye. Raising awareness and education on this energy source is an important goal for Helgeland Kraft, which hopes to ensure hydro-power’s continued growth in Norway, and see that it continues long into the future.
Already in a popular location for sight-seeing, Helgeland Kraft hope that the Upper Forsland plant will become a sought-out destination for passing explorers, perhaps hiking to it for the challenge or the view, but staying to learn more about the possibilities of this green technology. The service road leading up to the plant is closed to public traffic, one of Helgeland’s many efforts to limit the plant’s impact on the tranquillity of the local area. Instead, hikers have the sounds of the tumbling Forsland River as the biggest clue to the plant’s location – that is, until they reach the edge of the resort, when their arrival will trigger the building to light up through the trees. The light show, powered by the plant’s clean hydro-power, shines for an hour before falling dormant again, a striking beacon to travellers without wasting power.
A Piece of History
As well as being able to explore the facility, read-up and learn about hydropower, and watch the plant’s operations, visitors can enjoy the beauty of the surrounding land from an observation area, capable of seating up to 16 people, sitting just across the water from the hydro-power plant. They can also arrange to join a guided tour that will tell them more about the history of energy in the area, for Upper Forsland is not the only surprise to discover in the sprawling forests.
The plant is kept company by the relics of its predecessors, the remains of hydro-power initiatives dating back to the start of the 20th Century. In particular, remains from the 1940s, concrete now reclaimed by water and woodland greenery, tell of German-built hydro-energy solutions that sought reliable energy sources during strenuous wartime conditions. Only a hint of what once stood, ruins such as the 1941 Starfossen Knaftverk or the 1943 Merrafossen dam show how even one of the darkest periods in human history was able to inspire bright initiatives for the future.
Building the Future
Now, following Upper Forsland, Helgeland Kraft have seven new plants planned – five in Tosbotn and two, in cooperation with Salten Kraftsamband AS, in Rødøy-Lurøy. In total, the construction of these plants represents an investment of 1100 million NOK, and will increase Helgeland Kraft’s total power generation capacity by 25 per cent. The Tosenanleggene plant in Tosbotn has already been completed, supplying 6500 households from an equally attractive, conscientiously constructed facility. The cost of these remaining builds has been made possible largely by a loan of 470 million NOK, which was provided by the Nordic Investment Bank (NIB).
This long-term funding is a new source of capital for Helgeland Kraft, and indicative of the recognition the company is quite rightfully receiving for its recent works. In May 2016, plant architects Stein Hamre Arkitektkontor attended the Architizer A+ Awards in New York, where the plants were the winners of the Architecture & Sustainability category.
These plants are but a few of the many global projects hoping to promote green energy by reaching out to the public imagination. In Denmark, the Solrødgård Wastewater Treatment Plant combines a waste-water treatment plant with public gardens, juxtaposing natural beauty with their glass-walled facility to remind visitors of the link between waste management and the world it works to protect. Meanwhile, wider initiatives such as the US-based Land Art Generate Initiative encourage artists around the world to address the topic of green energy, combining aesthetics with innovation in its biennial competitions much as Helgeland Kraft have in these builds.
Helgeland Kraft are a conscientious company, all of its staff sharing its commitment to the wellbeing of their region and its future in many capacities. As well as providing for Helgeland through clean, affordable energy, the company also believe in supporting people’s standard of living; every year, the company collect funding for local organizations, particularly supporting groups that work to help Norway’s children and young people.
Hydro-power is set to keep growing in Norway in the coming years, and with it, the industry and sustainability of the Helgeland region. As they enter their penultimate year of development, Helgeland Kraft’s plants should keep increasing visitors and attention to the area, just as they continue to increase reliable, cheap and conscience-freeing energy for the local population and beyond. The popularity of these aesthetic power plants is a trend that we will hopefully start to see spreading around Norway, Europe and the globe – one of many initiatives pushing to show the world that energy does not have to be expensive, ugly and harmful, but can be part of a clean, affordable and beautiful future.