18.08.20 Corona has further accelerated digitalization” Torbjörn Tärnhuvud • 5 min.

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interview with Torbjörn Tärnhuvud

Torbjörn Tärnhuvud is CEO of Uniper subsidiary Sydkraft Hydro Power AB. He talked to us about what he and his employees are doing to ensure that the electricity supply remains reliable even during the corona crisis and how the pandemic has fostered innovation.

Has corona threatened the supply of hydroelectricity in Sweden?

Not at all. We took the right steps early. I saw a news report in late February about the effects of the pandemic in Italy, France, and Spain. It was immediately clear to me that it wouldn’t be limited to these countries and would spread rapidly, including to Sweden. That same evening I sent an email to our whole workforce in which I initiated steps to protect our employees and to ensure supply security. We were proactive instead of reactive. This early and decisive action has paid off. Our operations have continued to run smoothly.

What steps did you take?

We suspended business travel, limited access to the control center, and imposed visitor restrictions. Employees returning from business trips abroad had to spend two weeks in quarantine. Like the rest of Uniper, all employees not needed in a control center or power plant have been working from home since March 9. Uniper operates 76 hydroelectric plants in Sweden with a total capacity of about 1,700 megawatts.

Presumably they can’t be run from home?

No, but our control center is staffed around the clock. We have contingency plans in case any of the specialists who work there get sick. Asset maintenance must continue during corona to ensure smooth operations. To minimize contact and the risk of infection, we formed small maintenance teams of at most three people. In addition, they increasingly use new technologies like drones as well as helmet and body cameras. This has worked out very well.

Have you postponed projects because of corona?

We’ve turned to virtual solutions. For example, several of our engineers were going to travel to a factory in Venice to inspect new turbine shafts we’d ordered for one of our hydroelectric plants. Because the Venice region was particularly hit hard by the pandemic, we cancelled the trip and inspected the shafts remotely instead. We had a live video conference in which the Italians moved a camera over the new equipment, enabling our engineers to carefully inspect the images. The process took a whole day but worked perfectly.

How was the transition from regular operations to the new procedures under corona?

Surprisingly smooth. At no point were our operations or the energy supply endangered. Of course it was a big adjustment for our employees. But they met the challenge with determination and creativity. With many of our employees working from home, our IT department has ensured that we’re protected against cyberattacks.

Have the work arrangements fostered innovation?

Absolutely. Corona has further accelerated digitalization. Even after corona we’ll retain many of the processes we’ve tested and put in place. They’ll enable us to save time and money and further reduce our environmental footprint.

When will you return to normal operations?

We don’t know yet. A pandemic working group has been analyzing the situation continually and, in close consultation with other Uniper colleagues, writing guidelines and directives. We have plans in place in case the COVID-19 situation improves as well as plans in case it deteriorates. So far, none of our 175 employees has caught the virus. This may be due in part to our quick response. I’m responsible for our workforce, whose health is crucial for the security of Sweden’s energy supply. I won’t take unnecessary risks and will maintain the restrictions for as long as necessary. Although everything has gone smoothly so far, I'm sure that most colleagues will be pleased when they can return to the office. Video conferences enable us to discuss a lot of things. But they can’t replace the informal meeting in the turbine hall or at the coffee machine.

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