Building an unmanned hydropower plant beneath Greenland’s glaciers

Photo via flickr courtesy of visitgreenland

A hydropower plant in the Arctic circle is buried beneath the permafrost and fully automated so that no-one has to battle temperatures as low as minus 40ºC to operate it.

As a project manager, I haven’t often been involved in projects as exciting as the construction of an unmanned hydropower plant buried underneath Greenland’s ice cap and a layer of permafrost. ABB provided the control system and the switchgear for this remarkable project.

The plant’s turbines are 200 meters below the surface and are connected to the meltwater lake that feeds them by a tunnel blasted through the permafrost. The water has to flow constantly so that it doesn’t freeze. The location and the conditions were our biggest challenge.

Harsh environment

The glaciers and the meltwater lake look majestic, but it’s a harsh environment. The power plant is well within the Arctic circle, 50 kilometers from Ilulissat, which itself is a small community of just 4,500 people. In good weather you can reach the plant by helicopter all year round. In summer you can also travel there by sea, and in winter, when the sea is frozen, by snow-scooter.

The power plant is so hard to reach that the plan is not to have to go there at all. The power plant will be manned during the first year, but it’s to be fully automated after that. Hundreds of sensors and seven cameras will record data which an operator will be able to monitor and control through ABB’s control system from the comfort of Ilulissat.

Security, security, security

So we had to think security, security, security all the way. We put in many redundant systems: Two independent power supplies are feeding each of the control cubicles,  redundant power supplies with voting units for PLC supply, separate power systems for field equipment, redundant equipment in critical places, redundant servers, and a telephone system with backup communication line to be able to reach the fire brigade, police or municipal authorities at all times.

One of the highlights was when the last part of the tunnel was blasted to connect it to the lake and the plant entered into operation. Ilulissat is now able to replace its diesel generators with clean hydropower for its electricity, heating of residential facilities and hot water supply, and still has plenty of capacity left over to allow for future growth.

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About the author

Kim Knap

My passion is making things work and getting things done. I’m an electrical engineer by education and a project manager by profession, with experience in automation and control for hydropower plants, driverless metros, district heating, waste incinerators, printing presses, and drinking water and beer production. Outside of work I’m an outdoor man: I hunt, run, ski and cycle.
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