Nedre Røssåga power plant underwent extensive modernisation. Now the licence terms are being revised. How will consideration for nature conservation and power generation be balanced, and what will it mean for Statkraft?

Map of NorwayRøssåga

Øvre Røssåga and Nedre Røssåga hydropower plants are located in Hemnes Municipality in Nordland County. They have a combined power output of 420 MW and use Lake Røssvatnet, Norway's second largest lake, as a reservoir. Nedre Røssåga was rehabilitated from 2013 to 2016.

Portal building at Lower Røssåga power plant.

When the first large hydropower plants were built in Norway 100 years ago, there was less debate about the environment and nature conservation, than today. Providing people with light and heat and enabling industries to create jobs were the primary concerns at the time. Now that the licence terms for many of the old power plants will be revised, the situation is different. Environmental considerations have taken on a greater signficance.

Is it possible to right past wrongs? If so, what will that mean for power generation and profitability? How should one consideration be weighed against the other?

In the field

Rain is pouring over houses and streets in Mosjøen, a suitable reminder that hydropower is a major source of prosperity in Norway. At Fru Haugans Hotel, twenty people dressed in fleece, all-weather jackets and mountain boots are boarding a bus that will take them up to Lake Røssvatnet around 90 kilometres further east, between Mosjøen and the Swedish border.

Lake Røssvatnet is the reservoir for Øvre and Nedre Røssåga hydropower plants, and the group is conducting a two-day inspection in connection with the revision of terms for the two power plants.

"The purpose of the inspection is to give the various stakeholders the opportunity to visit the site and see the situation with their own eyes," says Carsten Jensen, head of watercourse licencing in the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE). NVE arranges the inspection as part of the revision of terms process, but Statkraft has, as owner of the power plant, planned the actual excursion and stops.

Jensen emphasises that the revision of terms is mainly about environmental measures, and that Statkraft is at no risk of losing their licence.

"What we're going to discuss are minor changes in the terms for continued operations," says Jensen. "The power plant has been operating for 60 years, and it will still be there after this."

The good feeding conditions and stable water levels contribute to making this one of the finest wetland areas in Nordland County.

Many stakeholders

Participants in the inspection are representatives of the affected municipalities, interest organisations, Statkraft, NVE and the Environment Directorate.

Lake Røssvatnet is Norway's secondlargest lake. There are long distances to cover, many hours on the bus and many stops along the way. At each stop, NVE's representative explains which requirements have come from different stakeholders, while Statkraft's representative explains what has been done and any future plans. There is a business-like tone to the questions and comments.

"The inspection is a great opportunity for us to present the various measures we've taken to reduce negative environmental impacts," says Bjørn Grane, environmental coordinator in Statkraft.

"It's also useful to hold a dialogue in the field where you can see directly what has been done."

Good news for the trout

One of the first stops is at the Gluggvass River, which is dry as a result of the development of Øvre Røssåga power plant. Due to rain and inflows from streams, there is still water in the river but the rate of water flow is greatly reduced from its original levels. The reduced flow affects both the aesthetic experience and the conditions for fish in the river.

"We implemented measures here in 2001, long before there was any order imposed to do so," says Grane. He shows how Statkraft has built artificial pools and thresholds in the river to optimize the reduced flow.

"We've achieved good water flow in a narrower river, and the measures have had a positive and lasting effect. They benefit both the trout in the river and people's enjoyment of nature."

Carsten Jensen, NVE

Carsten Jensen, head of watercourse licencing in the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE), led the inspection and explained how the revision of terms process works.

Revision of terms

In Norway, the licence terms for many power plants are currently being revised, and one of the goals is to update the environmental requirements to the current standard.

Selbusjøen received revised terms in 2014, and terms are currently under revision for several watercourses, including Tokke, Vinje, Røssåga, Surna/Trollheim, Altavatn, Aura, Bævra and Rana. Several revision processes will start in the years to come.

This is the process

> Representatives of all stakeholders identify and justify requirements to the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE).
> NVE asks the licensee (for example Statkraft) to comment on the requirements and then decides whether the terms need revision.
> NVE asks the licensee to prepare an audit document containing, among other things, an overview of power plants, licences, hydrological documentation, incurred damage and disadvantages, actions taken and opinions on and costs of proposed measures.
> NVE sends the revision document for consultation to all the stakeholders.
> The licensee comments on the consultative statements.
> NVE assesses the consultative statements and submits a recommendation to the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy.
> The Government decides on the revision.
> Approved revisions to terms are implemented through orders from the relevant directorates (NVE, Directorate for Nature Management, County Governor).

Frode Solbakken

Frode Solbakken (with cap), member of the board of the local chapter of Friends of the Earth Norway, believes Statkraft is good at power generation but less focused on conserving nature and the environment.

Intermunicipal working group

The municipalities of Hemnes, Hattfjelldal and Grane set up a joint working group early on, which has gathered input and requirements in connection with the revision of terms. One such requirement is a minimum summer water level in Lake Røssvatnet and the most stable water level possible throughout the summer.

"Varying water levels in the reservoir affect people's experience of nature and create different types of challenges in using the lake," explains Håkon Økland, senior adviser in Hemnes Municipality and head of the working group.

"Depending on precipitation and power production levels, the water level can vary by many metres, and this creates practical problems. Launching boats can be challenging at low water levels, and reefs can appear in areas where there's no problem under normal conditions."

Statkraft has tried to mark some of the reefs but the problem is that the ice shears off the markers. Økland believes the reefs need to be marked on GPS as well.

Plus and minus

Interventions in nature can occasionally have surprisingly positive results. Between Øvre and Nedre Røssåga power plants, 5,000 decares of marsh and woodland were inundated when the plants were built.

"Lake Stormyrbassenget has become a popular nesting area for a variety of bird species," explains Bjørn Grane. "The good feeding conditions and stable water levels contribute to making this one of the finest wetland areas in Nordland County."

There is broad consensus that this is good, but Håkon Økland and the working group are not entirely satisfied. They want more water in the river downstream from the lake to prevent the river from becoming overgrown and the fish from freezing. They believe Statkraft can afford this.

"Since the power plant was built, rainfall has increased by about three per cent in this part of Norway," says Økland. "We believe that some of this increased water volume can be used to ensure a minimum water flow in the rivers. All that water doesn't have to go to increased power generation."

He points out that requirements for minimum water flow in the rivers are mandatory for new licences today and it should also be possible to impose a minimum water flow when the terms of old licences are revised.

Frode Solbakken agrees. He is a member of the board of the local chapter of Friends of the Earth Norway. "Statkraft does a good job of power generation but I don't feel that protection of nature and the environment is a priority. Therefore, this type of revision of terms is necessary so that the interests of the general public are voiced."

Bjørn Grane, Ragnhild Stokker, Håkon Økland

Licences and revision of terms in other countries

Laws and practices around hydropower licences vary widely from country to country, and revision of terms occurs primarily in countries where the licences are perpetual.

In countries with fixed-term licences (e.g. Chile, Nepal, and Albania), revision of terms is uncommon. 

In some countries, like Turkey and Albania, irrigation has higher priority than hydropower production. This means that the hydropower plant can be ordered to increase the rate of water flow beyond the minimum level when necessary. 

In Germany, most existing hydropower plants have licences for 100 years. Some expire in 2052, others in 2071. The Dörverden power plant is an exception, with a licence that expires in 2025. When existing licences expire, German authorities may grant new licences with terms of 20 or 30 years.

Political concern

The inspection concludes at Korgen, where the water from Nedre Røssåga power plant discharges. Work on upgrading the plant’s tunnels, station halls and the generating unit was recently completed. Statkraft believes these upgrades increase production and at the same time provide better growing conditions for salmon and sea trout. Among other things, the discharge from the new power plant was moved further upstream, which provides a larger and more even water flow in a longer stretch of the river.

Most participants in the inspection agree that these are good measures, but there is some concern about the long-term value of Statkraft's self-imposed commitments, for example, to maintain stable water levels in some of the reservoirs.

Håkon Økland from the intermunicipal working group is among those who believe that Statkraft's self-imposed restrictions must be formalised to a greater extent. "Who knows what the future will bring? After all, this is a licence for the next 30 years," Økland says.

Major assets at stake

Hilde BakkenStatkraft supports the main goal behind revision of licence terms.

"However, it must be shown that the benefits of environmental improvements are likely to exceed the cost of less secure power supply and lower value creation,” says Hilde Bakken, Executive Vice President of Power Generation in Statkraft.

"If the new terms reduce power production, flexibility or the flood-control function of the reservoirs, we will be concerned."

The Røssåga power plants are central to the Norwegian power system, and alone, contribute two per cent of total production in Norway.

"We have a great deal of activity related to revision of terms in Statkraft. Up to 80 per cent of our production in Norway is subject to revision of terms by 2022. There are major assets at stake," says Bakken.

Thomas riddervold

Thomas Riddervold, project manager for the revision of terms process in Statkraft, is concerned that changes in the licence terms might negatively impact power generation.

Lost production

Jarl Koksvik, senior adviser in the Environment Directorate, definitely shares this view.

"The Environment Directorate has a responsibility for the management of salmon, sea trout and arctic char," says Koksvik. "In Røssåga, we're committed to ensuring the minimum rate of water flow and a power plant operation with the least possible impact on the fish. Statkraft's self-imposed measures are good, but they should be formalised in the revised licence terms. This avoids uncertainty about how any changes in the ownership model or to requirements for operating the power plant will affect conditions in the river."

For Statkraft there is much at stake. The company has invested NOK 1.8 billion in a new power station and in rehabilitating the old one in Nedre Røssåga.

"Changes to the licence terms will be crucial to how Statkraft can operate the new power plant and thereby the amount of power we can produce," says Thomas Riddervold, project manager for the revision of terms process in Statkraft.

"We believe formal reservoir restrictions will limit the flexibility of power generation. This can reduce the production of renewable power."

The King decides

The NVE representatives will not give any hints about their conclusions, but Senior Engineer Ragnhild Stokker, leader of the Røssåga revision of terms process in NVE, thinks the inspection was useful.

"We've received an impression of the most relevant sites in the area, and the inspection enabled us to hear the concerns of the various stakeholders," Stokker says. "An inspection always gives a more complete picture of what has emerged during the consultation process."

Carsten Jensen from NVE thanks the participants and explains the next steps in the process:

"We have already received written consultation statements, but after the inspection there is an opportunity to submit any new input within 14 days. Then we will complete our recommendation to the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy. In the end, it is the King in Council who makes the final decision."

Text: Morten Ryen
Photo: Tine Poppe
The article has also been published in Statkraft's magazine People & Power no. 1/2017.

Now that the licence terms for many of the old power plants will be revised, environmental considerations have taken on a greater signficance.