Give and take
first of their kind converter stations help France and Spain make a powerful connection -- and point the way to Europe's future
BY MEREDITH LANDRY
Cables inside the tunnel connect power-conversion stations in France and Spain.
The entry platform of the tunnel in Montesquieu-des-Albéres, France
PHOTOS COURTESY OF INELFE
To create a more competitive continental economy, the European Union (EU) needs to be interconnected. To build business across borders, freely flowing electricity is a basic infrastructure requirement.
That’s why the EU launched a first-of-its-kind project to connect the power grids of France and Spain. The €700 million power line, which burrows through the Pyrenees Mountains, aims to double the energy exchange between the two countries, increase energy security and ease one of the worst grid bottlenecks in Europe.
At each end of the 65-kilometer (40-mile) power line, a converter substation translates the line’s direct current (DC) flow into the alternating current (AC) used by each country’s grid. When the project closed in mid-2015, it doubled the interconnection capacity between France and Spain—and helped the European Union get one step closer to creating a continent-wide super grid.
To get the power lines operating on schedule, the project team built the two converter substations at the same time. But designing these two stations, which accounted for more than half of the project’s budget, required thinking outside the box.
Project managers from Germany-based Siemens AG, a PMI Global Executive Council member, had never built such bulk power converter stations that connected to HVDC Plus technology—a new type of high-voltage direct-current power line—threaded entirely underground as a land-to-land connection.
“We couldn’t refer to another project and just hit copy and paste,” says Volker Lehmann, Siemens’ project director based in Erlangen, Germany. “This was the first time for a project size like this, so we really had to start from scratch.”
Although Siemens deployed the first HVDC Plus system in November 2010 in San Francisco, California, USA, that project ran the power cable underwater rather than through the ground. Unlike the underwater installation, the underground installation in Europe required negotiations with landowners whose property was on the line’s route, Mr. Lehmann says. Plus, the converter stations with HVDC Plus technology required special technical features that were new to electrical engineers in Europe. In particular, the stations’ closed loop control systems required Siemens to use engineers who have “a very high level of understanding in order to manage the converter stations for testing and later operation and maintenance,” he says.
Making the Connection
June 2008: French and Spanish governments sign agreement outlining main features of the power line and converter station project.
December 2010: Inelfe hires Siemens AG to build the converter stations.
January 2012: Construction of the converter stations begins.
August 2014: Construction of the converter stations ends.
September 2014: All work on power line project completed.
Mid-2015: The power line and converter stations become commercially operational.
Geography and regulations also required double design work. The team had to create separate plans for each station—one in Santa Llogaia d’Àlguema, Spain and the other in Baixas, France.
One converter substation is in Baixas, France and the other is in Santa Llogaia d’Àlguema, Spain, below.
VOLKER LEHMANN, PROJECT DIRECTOR, SIEMENS AG
Location: Erlangen, Germany
Experience: 23 years
Other notable projects:
1. Testing and Validation Center in Wegberg-Wildenrath, Germany, a railway test center owned by Siemens Mobility, which opened in June 1997. Mr. Lehmann was practical project manager for power supply.
2. The Shanghai Maglev Train, in Shanghai, China, the world’s first commercially operated high-speed line that uses magnetic levitation rather than conventional tracks, which launched in January 2004. Mr. Lehmann was lead of back office for power supply.
Career lessons learned: First, clarify the responsibilities of all involved parties before getting contract signatures. And second, in a multilingual project environment, choose a language that is of none of the parties’ mother tongue as the primary mode of communication.
“The layout of each station is slightly different,” Mr. Lehmann says. “Each location had different seismic requirements and the land itself was different. Consequently, all civil and mechanical design had to be adapted to meet those specific requirements.”
LINES OF COMMUNICATION
The customer, Inelfe (Interconnexion Electrique France Espagne), a joint venture between the grid operators Réseau de Transport d’Electricité in Paris, France and Red Eléctrica de España in Madrid, Spain, hired Siemens 32 months after France and Spain agreed to launch the project in 2008. Construction on the substations began in January 2012 and ended in August 2014. The biggest project challenge was the language barrier, according to Mr. Lehmann. Communicating with stakeholders who spoke a mix of French, Spanish and German proved to be even more difficult than configuring the highly technical components of the converter stations.
“We had to translate all training and maintenance materials into each party’s native language,” he says. “This took longer than expected, but it was critical that everyone knew exactly what had to be done so there was no confusion.”
The majority of team members also spoke some English, so that language became the primary language used when information was shared internally. For instance, when Mr. Lehmann’s team shared documents via a web application, all such files typically were written in English.
Workers unroll cable in Villeneuve-la-Riviere, France. Below left, a cable junction is connected in Toulouges, France. Below right, workers thread cable through a tunnel entry.
“The different standards in Spanish and French were quite challenging to the design phase,” Mr. Lehmann says. “So we had to translate some of them into English in order to make them 100 percent understandable for the German engineers as well as the experts from Siemens subsidiaries in France and Spain. We also found engineering companies who were able to deal with the three languages without problems. After finding that solution, the design phase went quite smoothly.”
The project is part of a broader EU initiative to achieve 10 percent grid interconnectivity across Europe by 2020. Such a pancontinental electrical super grid would allow European countries to efficiently exchange energy.
Miguel Arias Cañete of Spain, the EU commissioner for energy and climate action, says the France-Spain power line is a “truly landmark project.” Maroš Šefčovič of the Slovak Republic, vice president of the European Commission’s Energy Union, said in a February press release: “By connecting our member states and energy markets, we will be stronger together. We need many more examples like this all over Europe.” PM
“By connecting our member states and energy markets, we will be stronger together. We need many more examples like this all over Europe.”
—Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission’s Energy Union
PM NETWORK SEPTEMBER 2015 WWW.PMI.ORG
SEPTEMBER 2015 PM NETWORK