Vattenfall – Proof of Concept

We learn about a floating solar farm that is a new flagship project for Vattenfall’s fossil-free future.

Vattenfall is an energy company owned by the Swedish government, with their headquarters in Solna, close to Stockholm. It enjoys a turnover of 16 billion euros and is run by a team of 20,000 employees. More than that though, Vattenfall has a mission to be completely fossil-free within one generation. Just before last Christmas, the company shut down its one remaining coal plant in the Netherlands. This is only the latest in a lengthy process of divesting any business activities that are not compatible with the company’s goals, while simultaneously investing in everything sustainable and fossil-free.

“We are the market leader in onshore and offshore wind projects with around 50 wind farms operational in the Netherlands, Sweden Germany, UK, and Denmark. We are currently constructing and preparing for the construction of 2 wind projects Hollandse Kust in the Netherlands, each of which is 750MW in size. Sustainability is more than wind, however” explains Ron Sperber, Vattenfall’s procurement manager for solar power. “We’re also deeply involved in large-scale solar power, an interest we formalised two years ago by setting up a Business Unit. Solar and Batteries, dealing with permitting, subsidies, everything we do for the procurement of the components that we need, and within the business we have technicians who will follow up on the whole project until it’s fully built and commissioned.”

A new Vattenfall flagship project in the solar energy sector is their 1.2mw floating solar farm.

“It started with a brainstorm session about three years ago,” remembers Ivo Iprenburg, Vattenfall’s New Business Development Manager. “The customer had the ambition to become energy neutral as a company, so we came up with the plan. The idea was that it would be interesting to dive into the opportunity of floating solar, alongside the machinery of the company, and the process started there. We analysed the market, and with Procurement, we selected the best construction partner and signed a contract with Perpetum in the summer of 2019. In the autumn of 2019, we closed the agreement with the customer and we will realise the project somewhere in the upcoming months.”

Efficient use of space

The floating solar farm, the first project of its kind for Vattenfall, will see the company producing renewable energy that amounts to as much as half the electricity consumption of the customer of the project

“Modules perform better at cooler temperatures and the hypothesis is that placing them on the water will allow for a lower temperature for the solar cells,” points out Rik Wessels, the project engineer for the project. “Market research shows quite a variation in what to expect in terms of yield increase, ranging from 5 to 15%. We’ve done modelling of our own and based on this we expect the yield gains can be in the region of 5% due to the cooling effect of water.”

As well as creating more efficient solar power, the floating nature of the plant also means that they are making more efficient use of land.

“The Netherlands is a small country and so far, most of the solar plants were built on rooftops or agricultural land. However, lack of space puts increasing pressure on available land and solar projects are vying for scarce space with agriculture and conservation projects.,” says Iprenburg. “Floating solar is a good alternative, especially if you look at the opportunities in this specific location. There are no fish, and it can’t be used for recreational purposes. It’s effectively dead water. So it’s a very efficient way to use for floating solar.”

“We are more flexible due to the water,” agrees Maria Sanz Barrio, the construction manager for the project. “We don’t have other objects disturbing us. We don’t have the problems of land-based solar.”

The Highest Standards

For Vattenfall, however, a project like this means every T must be crossed and every I dotted, with safety being the first and most important priority.

“Health and safety are Key values within Vattenfall and that’s why we won’t work with just anybody,” Sperber says. “Every contractor, alongside their other attributes, has to be qualified on the topics of health and safety. We go to the component factories to check their adherence to our quality and sustainability criteria. Every company is audited by an external company on sustainability. The technical audits we do ourselves.”

These standards are particularly important given the nature of the solar project, as working in the water brings whole new challenges with it.

“One of the big challenges is, of course, mounting and executing electrical work on or close to the water,” Wessels says. “In terms of health and safety that is a big challenge. Other challenges are in component selection as the different components need to be ready for placement above water which requires more attention to find on the market. Our contractors assist us with this and check all the certificates, which they then provide to us during construction.”

Finding those partners is a job that requires diligent vetting of potential suppliers and contractors. “Floating solar power demands specific experience, which is why the selection process took longer than normal,” Iprenburg explains.

“During the tender for this project we invited selected suppliers to learn more about their experience with this kind of work,” Sperber says.

Emil Snelleman, part of the procurement team for this project, adds, “We organised what we called Floating Solar Days where we invited market leaders to showcase their products and tell us what the learning curves are. They helped us find a supplier for the subsurface components. Through them, we found other potential our contractors and suppliers.”

With this project well underway, Vattenfall is already thinking about the doors it could open for future projects.

“This project is really important for us to do it right in the first place and learn from this new project internally,” Sperber says. “We’ve already acquired an extensive pipeline with potential floating solar projects in the Netherlands. The mission is to grow in this specialised area.”

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