By Richard Orange
When Anthony Hills first considered the shift from fossil fuels to green energy, he didn’t expect it to take him and his wife Sophie from blazing Perth to the edge of the Arctic Lapland.
“It was the first white Christmas for both of us!” exclaims Sophie from their new home in Skelleftea, northern Sweden. “There’s literally reindeer in the forests around here, and you can’t get much more Christmassy than that.”
It’s -22 Celsius today, a 55-degree temperature difference from back home, the river that runs outside their apartment has frozen solid, and the forested hills around them are buried in deep snow.
“Carols make so much more sense now,” says Anthony, a former engineer at a offshore oil rig near Perth. “‘Dashing through the snow’ … at home, you blindly sing it, whereas here you do feel more festive. There’s Christmas lights in the snow, and it just feels more magical.”
Skelleftea – pronounced something like “She Left You” – has become one of the first boomtowns of the green industrial transition thanks to Northvolt, a Swedish company specialising in lithium-ion technology for electric vehicles. It’s mission now is to build Europe’s first battery giga-factory.
The factory has drawn engineers, construction specialists, and executives from more than 50 different countries (including several other Australians).
When I was there, everyone was working flat-out to get the plant’s first battery produced by the end of this year, which they managed four days before deadline, on December 28.
It is now on track to be the first battery factory in Europe to produce at giga-factory scale, meaning it can produce more than 15 gigawatt hours (GWh) of cumulative storage in a single year.
“It’s a bit hectic, but that’s the nature of startups, right?” Anthony says of the atmosphere. “They want to be the greenest battery in the world by doing as much as possible in one place, and no one ever broke new ground easily.”
Kristina Sundin Jonsson, head of the local municipality, compares the scale of development to the gold rush that formed the city a century ago. She predicts that the population will grow 20 per cent in just 10 years.
“Everything is happening so fast,” she says of the need to cater to 15,000 new citizens. “It affects everything. It affects housing, schools, water supply, elderly care, the fire department, everything. It’s a total transformation of the city.”
The reason this boom is happening here lies partly in the river that runs past both the municipality offices and Sophie and Anthony’s new apartment, and partly in the enormous expanses of forest and tundra that lie to the north and west of the city.
The river alone produces more than 4000 GWh of green hydropower, and taken together, the rivers in Sweden’s far north produce nearly 30,000 GWh. The region is also one of the best in the world for onshore wind, with capacity in northern Sweden nearly doubling last year to 7.1 GW as some of the world’s largest wind farms come on stream.
What is more, this green power comes cheap: Last month, companies could buy power in Northern Sweden for less than a quarter of the going rate in France or Germany.
In Skelleftea, the municipality-owned power company attracted Northvolt in 2019 by promising a pre-prepared site, together with 300 MW of power capacity, at a fraction of what the company would have had to pay further south.
The huge quantities of cheap renewable power have also drawn new green industry projects to other northern cities.
About 160 kilometres north in nearby Boden, H2 Green Steel will start work next year on the world’s first industrial-scale steel plant using green hydrogen rather than coal, and Spain’s Fertiberia plans to use green hydrogen to make emissions-free ammonia.
Further north, in Gallivare, the state iron mining company LKAB, will next year embark on a £35 billion ($65.47 billion), 20-year project to switch to fossil-free sponge iron, again using hydrogen technology. This project is based on hydrogen technology successfully trialled at the Hybrit pilot plant in nearby Lulea.
Peter Larsson, the man the Swedish government has appointed to coordinate the region’s green transition, estimates that the population of the country’s two most northerly counties will have to grow by 100,000 over the next 15 years.
At the Northvolt site, it feels as if they’ve already arrived. The site is humming with construction workers and engineers as new equipment is installed and commissioned almost daily.
“It’s a super-tricky project, and if you were to put all the risks in front of you when you started it, then you would probably never do it,” Fredrik Hedlund, the former Sony Ericsson executive leading the project admits as he strides from the vast grey box of the factory to the office complex.
Northvolt’s mission to produce the “world’s greenest batteries” has so far been enough to attract international engineering talent, he claims.
“For a lot of people it’s a remote place to come to, but at the same time the traction behind this project and the mission we have to be part of this transition in the automotive industry really calls out to a lot of people.”
Anthony first heard about the project at the leaving barbecue of a colleague in the Perth oil industry, who was making the move to Northvolt, which is backed by Volkswagen and BMW among other investors.
“I’d always wanted to move into renewable energy, to do something that was better for the environment than oil and gas, but I never really knew how to make the shift,” he says.
“So I asked him offhand if he needed any help over here, and about two months later, he messaged me and said, ‘hey, do you want to come over?’.”
Sophie and Anthony had just bought their first apartment in East Perth and Anthony ended up doing the job interviews as they were moving in. A few weeks later, they were on a flight to the other side of the world, with Sophie, a behavioural scientist, quickly getting a job in human resources at Northvolt.
“Everyone else at this company has a similar sort of mindset,” Sophie says. “A lot of people have uprooted their lives from all over Europe or other parts of the world, so it’s quite cool.”
Both the municipal and national government are working hard to attract new workers to a region where snow cover is constant from November to April, and where the winter sun shines for no more than four hours a day.
The city has been trying to shed its reputation as an industry town where culture is limited to fanatically following the local ice hockey team. This summer it inaugurated one of the tallest timber buildings in the world, the 20-storey Sara Culture House, which boasts two theatres, a museum, an art gallery and a library.
People from the far North have a reputation in Sweden for being less than monosyllabic, with even the word for “yes” replaced by a sharp inhalation of breath.
But on the Skelleftea city website, locals are instructed to be friendly to the coming new arrivals.
“You are going to see more new faces in Skelleftea than ever before,” runs one information post. “Their experience of Skelleftea will, to a large extent, depend on how good we are at welcoming them.”
Judging by Sophie and Anthony’s experience, it has worked.
“We’ve made some really great Swedish friends up here. And they’re so forthcoming if you need help with anything, although it’s not like Australia where you go grocery shopping and you might make small talk with a complete stranger,” Anthony says.
Anthony has joined a group of “Aurora-hunters” on the company staff who head away from the city lights when the Northern Lights are at their brightest, trying to capture the astronomical phenomenon in all its colourful glory.
Sophie takes walks in the forests surrounding the city. “My highest ambition right now is to see a moose,” she says. “We keep coming across their tracks everywhere. It’s like they’re taunting me, and my imagination is just running wild.”
The company and its staff also arrange activities such as skiing, curling and trekking to make new arrivals feel at home.
While Skelleftea, a nine-hour drive from Stockholm, looks like a remote outpost to many Swedes, from the West Australian perspective it doesn’t seem that way at all.
“For us to be here, a six-hour flight to anywhere in Europe, is a complete luxury,” Sophie explains. “Perth is the second most remote city in the world after Honolulu,” Anthony adds. “Even visiting my grandparents in Queensland means a six-hour flight.”
This holiday season, though, they’re not planning on travelling far at all. Instead, they’ll be taking a trip to a farm in the interior where the owner offers husky sledding tours to intrepid tourists.
“We weren’t sure what to do … so we had a look around and found this cute little cabin, out in the middle of nowhere on this husky farm, and we love dogs,” Sophie explains. “So that’ll probably be the most ‘Arctic’ thing we’ve done.”