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Here comes the sun - the transformation of Norway's traditional industry

NorSun’s silicon wafer plant is situated side by side with Norsk Hydro’s carbon plant in Årdal – an attest to how the old economy is being transformed into the new, green economy of solar energy. What makes both industries similar is that they are both power intensive. Norway’s abundant hydro-power resources make it an ideal place to locate solar wafer production. What’s more the industrial mindset is already there.

Alf Bjørseth, a former Norsk Hydro research director, founded NorSun at Årdal in Norway, home to the highest waterfall in Northern Europe. © Scatec

In 2003, the situation looked bleak for the western town of Årdal and its 5,000 inhabitants. The combined farming and industrial community was told by its dominant employer, Norsk Hydro, that it would no longer see investments in the primary aluminium production facilities. Two hundred and ten jobs would be gone. Along came NorSun.

Founded by Alf Bjørseth , a former Norsk Hydro research director, NorSun was able to see the potential in the abandoned facilities, available technical workforce and abundant hydro-power resources (Årdal is home to the highest waterfall in Northern Europe) and take the decision to build a factory for the production of mono-crystalline silicon wafers for solar cells. By the time the facility in Årdal is in full speed in early 2009, it will annually produce enough silicon wafers for up to 185 megawatts of solar panels, enough to generate power for 9,000 homes.

“It was very natural when Norsk Hydro closed the Årdal plant to have NorSun there,” said Bjørseth, Chairman of Scatec (Scandinavian Advanced Technology), NorSun’s parent company. “There was energy, cooling water, shift work operators, and infrastructure. You can connect right to the turbine, rather than the grid, and cut electricity costs in half.”

Creating New from the Old
NorSun was able to create 140 new jobs in Årdal and recruit half of the workforce from Norsk Hydro. Bjørseth did a similar turnaround in the small town of Glomfjord, where he established Norway’s first silicon wafer plant in 1997 under his previous company ScanWafer (now part of the Norwegian listed company Renewable Energy Corporation) at an old ammonia plant for Norsk Hydro’s fertilizer production. He also built a silicon wafer plant in the little town of Herøya and recruited employees there that would have otherwise been made redundant from the closure of Norsk Hydro’s magnesium plant there. Altogether, close to 1,000 new jobs were created in solar industry.

“Almost the whole community (at Årdal) depended on Norsk Hydro,” said Bjørseth. “So when parts of it closed, it had tremendous impact. It shows new things can come when old things go away.”

ScanWafer is today part of many companies that were merged by Bjørseth to become Renewable Energy Corporation (REC), the world’s largest producer of silicon materials and the largest producer of PV (photovoltaic) wafers. He is no longer associated with REC but is chairman of a competing company called Scatec, which owns NorSun, NorWind, and OceanWind, among other companies. In addition to Årdal, NorSun has a silicon wafer plant in Finland and is building another in Singapore.


Alf Bjørseth, Scatec chairman, explains part of the production process to Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette Marit as part of the inauguration ceremony at the Årdal plant in June 2008.

© Scatec

 

From Solar to Nano-Carbon
Bjørseth plans to use the good experience from building solar wafer plants in Norway to build other types of plants at closing facilities. This time, though, it would be within new types of titanium used for the aerospace, petroleum and auto industries and nano-carbon, which has applications in the aerospace, pharmaceutical and polymer/plastics industries. The common link once again is the intense energy demands of these businesses and the need for finding experienced operators.

“Most likely we will go to places where Norsk Hydro or someone else is closing to get experienced operators,” said Bjørseth. “The whole society (of the metal and fertilizer industries) is based on a traditional industrial culture and used to working 24/7.”

Another solar success story is the recent conversion of Elkem’s old silicon plant at Fiskaa, just outside the southern city of Kristiansand, into a high-purity silicon metal plant. What was once a basic metal used for the chemicals industry is now being purified for the solar industry. Elkem has spent 25 years in metallurgical research to develop a new, less energy intensive method for removing critical impurities from silicon metal for solar use. As a result, Elkem was able to create 260 new jobs in a town that saw 120 jobs gradually leave by the time the old silicon plant shut down in 2006. A portion of these people were recruited directly from Elkem.

“The power lines, furnace equipment, shift operators and engineers were all there,” said Aasgeir Valderhaug, Technology Director at the Fiskaa plant. “(Power) is a large investment in a green field plant.”

Elkem plans to invest NOK 4.0-4.2 billion in the sizeable new facility. At peak production in 2010, the plant will produce 6,000 metric tonnes per year of high purity silicon metal. That represents a 10% increase in the current global production of this grade of silicon, according to Valderhaug. And like NorSun’s plant in Ardal, Elkem’s Fiskaa plant will produce side by side Elkem’s carbon plant, which still produces carbon electrodes for the aluminium industry, proving once again that new things can sprout from the old.

Norsk Hydro owns 18% in NorSun as its single largest industrial owner. Norsk Hydro has also invested NOK 50 million in Convexa, a Norwegian venture fund that concentrates on technology companies within solar energy; has established a joint venture with Umicore of Belgium for the production of solar-grade silicon for use in solar cells; and is part owner of the solar energy company Ascent Solar, a producer of super-thin, flexible solar cell modules based in Colorado, US.

Elkem is the single largest shareholder in REC with 23.45%. Elkem’s parent company Orkla owns a further 16.28% in REC.

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