24.04.2024 | Working on the right kind of energy problems

Learning by doing

Thomas Hamfelt (32), Senior Data Scientist, and Ingvi Thorkelsson (34), Portfolio Operations Manager at Axpo Sverige AB, are hard at work developing innovative energy solutions in the constantly evolving Nordics market. In this interview, they share their professional stories, talk about their day-to-day roles, and discuss the challenges of providing ancillary services to advance the energy transition.  

 

Let’s talk about your background.

Thomas (T): I was born and raised here in Malmö and studied business at Copenhagen business school. After that, I wanted to do something a bit more technical, so I went back to Sweden, enrolled in a statistics programme, and ended up doing my Master’s thesis with Axpo.

Ingvi (I): Born and raised in Iceland until 17 years of age, I went to international school in Norway and then on to Lund in Sweden for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. I was focused on power plant technology from the beginning and realised that to make a difference you have to make an impact on how we use energy. So I specialised in energy utilisation. I wrote my MA thesis with a local energy company in Landskrona, where I worked for six years in different roles. Then I joined another municipal energy company, as a business developer focusing on flexibility.

 

How did you come across Axpo?

T: It started with a phone call. As I was finishing my MSc in Lund I planned to write my thesis on artificial intelligence with one of the big Nordic banks. It was one week before Christmas when, due to an unexpected reorganisation, I had to find a plan B. I recalled an earlier course on power markets and so I basically googled ‘power trading Malmö’ and Axpo popped up. While I was a bit sceptical at first, I did some research and cold-called the company. I was invited to speak to the managing director and the physical trading desk colleagues and in no time at all I had an agreement to work 50% of my time for Axpo, as of January 2020, while writing my thesis during the other 50%. It’s something I’m very grateful for. My personal takeaway is that chances multiply as you seize them.

I: I also joined Axpo through a phone call (laughs). I knew one of the originators, who was my mentor on a leadership programme. I was negotiating with another company and received a ‘let’s-talk-about-Axpo’ call.

 

Why did you opt for a career in the energy sector?

I: I’m a nature person. The spectacularly beautiful canyons where we did white water rafting in my home valley were about to be dammed and disappear beneath the water to produce more electricity. Hydro has amazing charateristics, but if we don’t have to destroy nature, let’s try not to. I started thinking about how much energy is wasted in Iceland, so my goal at the age of 13-14 was to work with renewable energy and find solutions to this problem. Turns out that it’s more about using energy smartly.

T: I work on the physical desk and things become technical quite quickly. When I joined I was shown what was behind the curtain and it’s such complex machinery! While we don’t bring the physical electricity to the end customer, it’s all about supply and demand, and being part of the market reaching a price is super interesting. You scratch the surface and there are so many rabbit holes you can go down on.

I: The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know.

T: Exactly. I joined just before prices started going crazy. In 2021, behaviours started shifting and now, with all the renewables and power coming in, the market is in a very big transition. Stakeholders are introducing new ways of working, which is both exciting and challenging.

 

Is there anything that surprised you at Axpo?

I: I come from a municipal energy companies, where you do a lot of work that often doesn’t become reality. Or, if it does, it takes a long time. Axpo was the absolute opposite. The tempo of things here is completely different. Plus, your work makes a difference. It’s an awesome feeling to see the results of your work directly. “Here’s the contract, get it done.” It’s the very definition of learning by doing.

T: Ingvi came with a lot of positive energy and the will to get things done (laughs). Coming into the power industry after working in finance, I also felt there was a different momentum. It was like jumping on a train that suddenly took off. We have a lot to do, and they are the right kind of problems. With Axpo, you solve problems from day one. You need to roll up your sleeves and ask yourself, “what can I bring to the table that no one else is doing?”

 

Why do you think Axpo is the right place for you to grow further?

I: The possibility to take the initiative and grow with that. There’s always someone encouraging you to solve an issue in a scalable way and to do that you have to challenge yourself and the toolsets. You see the whole chain, what the customer needs, and thus all the chances of developing and improving it. It’s full of opportunities as long as you have a strong track record and are willing to take responsibility.

T: Absolutely. We’re listening to what the market wants, and if we can make a case for it and provide an innovative solution or service, there’s plenty of room to build, create and shape an idea. While we are a small albeit growing organisation in the Nordics, you still get to see the entire value chain. As Ingvi said, figuring out what the customer needs and what systems or processes are required is fun and rewarding.

I: It’s like working for a scale-up, in the sense that things are going fast, everyone is working as a team together to reach a common goal, but you also have the strength of a big company with considerable resources to help accelerate your work.

 

Taking a step back, what do you do day-to-day?

T: As a senior data scientist, I enable data for others. Transforming data into reports which management then uses for decision making and performance tracking. On the physical desk, we do quite a lot of programming, because physical power trading is open 24/7. We have automated processes that run daily and seeing new colleagues using our internal tools independently is empowering. I code myself and work on ancillary services, plus there’s quite a lot of contact with stakeholders.

I: As a portfolio operations manager, I talk to customers and prospects regarding energy markets in general. We discuss their needs and what they want to achieve. We need to have the solutions, and understand the challenges, how the market is developing, especially on the TSO – transmission system operator – front. Then we have to realise all the contracts, so we implement systems, work with developers, test with suppliers across our value chain; it gets complex quite quickly. On the same day, you can work as an amateur lawyer in the morning and then do software development testing, talk to the TSO and perform a re-purchase. It’s a very broad list of tasks.

 

Ingvi, what are ancillary services?

I: A power system has to be in balance. Every millisecond there must be a balance between what is produced and what is consumed. This is measured by the frequency of the grid. If you increase production and don’t increase consumption, or vice versa, there’ll be a shift in the frequency. Historically speaking, hydro plants have adjusted their power output to manage the frequency. But with more and more intermittent renewables in the system, consumption and production are less and less in sync. On top of that, after the energy crisis consumers are aware that they can shift loads in line with prices, so there have been even bigger imbalances. With intra-day trades, we adjust when we see loads occur sporadically, but within the delivery hour the TSO takes over the balancing responsibility. Their tools to ensure that the system is in balance are and have been ancillary services or frequency regulating services.  

There are different types of services, with different roles. Very fast ones, sometimes called synthetic rotational energy, which kick in if there’s a sudden dip in the frequency. Batteries or flexible consumption can do that.

Traditionally, energy companies, mainly large hydro power owners, have provided ancillary services. Now it’s completely new players that sometimes have nothing to do with energy, who want to enter the market. So, there’s a lot of education, explaining how things work, giving them access and making it easy to understand what’s in it for them and setting up solutions so they can become a player in the market. That’s where we come in.

 

Thomas, can you tell us more about a project you are working on?

T: The Landskrona battery project is very exciting, as Axpo is investing in the asset. We’re setting up the route to market (RTM), trying to adapt as much as possible to the individual situation. But that’s also one of the challenges.

We want to make our service offering scalable, trying to standardise and scale across projects. We scope out the entire RTM: what does the value chain look like, from auction to actual delivery? It’s not only about participating in the auction but also communicating the results back to the asset. It’s exciting to be part of that. To see the entire connection between the availability of the asset, the information that needs to be communicated to the exchange, and then getting these awarded contracts back to the asset and making this entire information chain flow 24/7 real time, Christmas or New Year. As an RTM provider, you get to see the entire value chain, so there’s a lot of stakeholder management and getting actors to work together in tandem.

 

How does the pipeline look like in terms of projects?  

I: It’s a very exciting pipeline. And not only for batteries and windfarms. There’s a lot of new capacity coming to market and a lot of interest from different actors in the value chain.

T: I’ve been sensing the tsunami coming for some time now. The sea has been on the rise, and right now we are surfing it (laughs). In addition to energy arbitrage, batteries can sell capacity to stabilise the power system. There are plenty of use cases.

I: Absolutely! A battery providing ancillary services could be seen as a burden for a local grid owner right now. Because they’re charging and discharging high power at the same time, perhaps there’s a peak load in the grid. However, it could be a resource for the local grid if there are products developed around it.

 

What is currently the biggest challenge in your role?

I: Building scalable solutions and certainty for the TSOs. The market setup keeps changing and we have to build scalable solutions for the current and future set-up at the same time, although we don’t know enough about how the system will look like in the long run. It’s a challenge to do it fast and in a scalable way while surrounded by so many uncertainties. But we’re investing quite a lot in such solutions.

T: Indeed. Looking externally, Nordic markets – especially Sweden – are not yet mature. On the Axpo side, we get to solve issues but at the same time we need to figure out how to do it. It’s fun and rewarding to take a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. 

How do you relax after work?

I: I like to go skiing – quite aggressively (laughs) – and kayaking or whitewater kayaking. I live in the flat part of Sweden, so this doesn’t happen too often, so I had to find alternatives: acro-yoga (partner acrobatic yoga), and disc golf. I also spend time with my family and play with my two kids, two and four, which makes for very fun times. What usually causes people’s jaws to drop is that I kayak over waterfalls . . . I’ve never been injured while kayaking, so I seem to be quite good at managing risks in my personal life too!

T: I live outside Malmö, so I have a bit of a commute. I try to use the time to wind down and relax and I really like to listen to a lot of podcasts. That’s one of the ways I can get different and deeper perspectives on the industry. Physical activity is important, so I try to run and work out. In winter if the weather allows it, I go ice-skating and downhill skiing. My wife also introduced me to long-range ice-skating on the big frozen lakes, and you get to skate for hours.

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