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A "new Rjukan" at Glomfjord

Glomfjord, which is situated north of the polar circle, is perhaps not an obvious site for the world's northernmost fertilizer plant, and it may come as no surprise that it took some time before fertilizer was actually produced there.
Glomfjord production site

The history of the Glomfjord plant goes almost as far back as Norsk Hydro’s – to 1912, when the company Glomfjord Aktieselskab acquired the waterfall rights on the Glomvik and Haugvik properties and started to build hydroelectric power plants.

Behind the company was the Swedish district judge, Knut Tillberg, who had originally brought Sam Eyde and Marcus Wallenberg into contact, and was one of Norsk Hydro’s first shareholders. Tillberg was planning to use the hydroelectric power create a “new Rjukan.”

“Glomfjord Aktieselskab” was established to construct a power plant and set up nitrogen production on the nearby island of Meløy. But by the time the hydroelectric power plant was finished, the new Haber technique, developed in Germany in 1914, had rendered nitrogen production from hydroelectric power unprofitable. The plant closed down around the time World War I broke out, and the 160 employees were laid off.

In 1918, the Norwegian state-owned power concern took over. The power plant was completed in 1920 with two Pelton turbines, each capable of producing 25,000 horse power from the 442 meter-high waterfall. The turbines were later upgraded to 27,500 horse power per unit.

The take over of the Glomfjord plant was due at least in part to the conviction of Norway’s prime minister, Gunnar Knudsen, that:  “…if there’s any hydroelectric power plant with a chance of success and making a good profit, it’s Glomfjord.”

Zinc works sinks

The new plan was to produce zinc at Glomfjord. Glomfjord Smelteverk was established in 1918 and formally constituted in January 1919. The smelter received NOK 5 million (approx. EUR 600,000 at 2003 exchange rate) in share capital. However, a crisis loomed as early as 1920: after a two-year period of strong growth, zinc prices fell by one-third compared with 1919.

An expansion of share capital to NOK 12 million (approx EUR 1.5 million at 2003 exchange rate) was unable to help. The market failed and the amount had to be written off. In May 1923, failure was imminent and the company shut down without ever reaching capacity production.

...and the power?

In 1924, the smelter was taken over by the state, but remained closed down while different alternatives were explored. Negotiations were conducted with various companies on the purchase of electricity from the plant, which was run at low capacity.

The question of starting fertilizer production at the site had already been raised during the parliamentary debate on the purchase of the Glomfjord power plant. A former Hydro engineer approached the Minister of Agriculture and pointed out that “Hydro is the only producer of plant nutrients in Norway; it is an enterprise solely backed by private capital, whose exclusive interest is to create the highest possible dividends for it shareholders.”

But the idea of producing fertilizer at Glomfjord did not become reality – not yet at least.

Over to aluminium

Meanwhile a smelter for aluminium production was completed in Haugvik in 1926, with the help of English capital. This was at a time when foreigners were no longer permitted to own Norwegian aluminium outright. The Englishmen got their concession for the plant through the International Aluminium Company Ltd., despite loud cries that “the family treasure was being sold cheap to foreign profiteers.”

The UK company owned a power plant in Wales and bauxite mines in France. The company purchased the plant buildings from the Norwegian state and proceeded to invest in new machinery.

Haugvik was the sixth, and last, aluminium plant to be constructed in Norway before World War II. All of them had foreign capital interests.

The plant began operating in 1927 and got off to a good start, despite problems selling its products in the first couple of years. Up until 1930, the plant purchased twice the volume of power budgeted, and in 1929, it produced 9,500 tons of aluminium with 24,000 kilowatts. The Haugvik plant generated a steadily growing profit, which was transferred to the English owners.

Stopped by sabotage

When the Germans occupied Norway and took control of the plant, Glomfjord’s aluminium production was coordinated with the company, Nordag – “Nordische Aluminiumgesellschaft.” Aluminium was a strategic material in the German war industry.

Herman Göring himself formulated the goal to boost aluminium output in Norway from 30,000 tons per year in 1940 to 180,000 tons in 1944. In 1940, the total average global production was 600,000 tons.

The Haugvik operation generated reasonable surpluses during the first part of the war, but from 1942, there were deficits due to raw material problems. The Germans wanted to expand the power plant with a new large-scale aluminium unit in mind. However, 12 Allied commandos successfully put a stop to German plans to expand aluminium production on Sept. 20 and 21, 1942, when they blew up pipelines and parts of the power plant.

From aluminium to ammonia

After the war, it was clear that the Glomfjord power should be used for industrial purposes, but for what exactly? The capacity of the plants was some 500 million kilowatt hours.

In the summer of 1946, the Norwegian Parliament, Storting, wanted to transmit the power to a new iron plant in Mo i Rana, but this proved difficult. The state offered Hydro the chance to buy power for a new ammonia production plant. On July 10, 1947, exactly one year after the Storting’s initiative to send power to Mo i Rana, an agreement was entered into between Hydro and the state for taking over power production at Glomfjord for the purpose of producing ammonia. The state’s contract to lease all power to Hydro, with the exception of concession power, was in effect until July 1, 2007.

Two years passed before the first tanker loaded with ammonia set its course from Glomfjord to Porsgrunn and Herøya. But from 1949 on, Glomfjord’s hydroelectric power had at last found a long-term application.

Sources:

“Vekstkraft.” Hydro Glomfjord, 1947-1997, by Marit Hernes and Eirik Fiva. Bodø, 1997.

“Med Norge i Vekst” a history of Norsk Hydro through 75 years. Editor: Jon Storækre, Oslo, 1980.

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