Spotlight on Electrification Pioneers: ABB

In this interview, Björn Jonsson, ABB‘s Head of Industrial Automation Division for Sweden, talks about the company’s projects and successes in the field of electrification.

Northvolt (NV): Congratulation on making Fortune’s Change the World list. You are making “a significant, positive social impact across the world”: Could you please talk me about your work with microgrids, and how you are helping countries around the world shifting to renewable energy?

The global trend of using renewable energy sources is creating a lot of demand for our electrification solutions. As a supplier, we are part of a large value chain: from energy generation to consumption points, whether it’s the industry sector, transport infrastructures, utilities, or private residences.

With renewables, we take care of all the electrification behind part of the energy generation, and we are also extremely active in the transmission of power over long distances: from where it is generated, to cities or industries where it’s consumed. Our state of the art technology allows us to make this transition in a sustainable and energy efficient way with the right quality, so as much of the the power that is generated is kept for consumption.

When it comes to cities and industries, we see an increased demand for microgrid solutions because renewables are not a stable source, you only generate energy from a solar panel when the sun shines or from a windmill when the wind is blowing. With microgrid solutions, we are creating smaller networks of energy systems, with both consumption and production of power within a smaller environment so that we have networks that can work independently from the rest of the grid.

In these kinds of systems where we balance supply and demand in a smaller environment, we need more energy storage solutions. That’s one of the parts where Northvolt comes into play: we can use the batteries that we get from Northvolt for these solutions in the network.

Robben Island is an example where we created a smart grid. If you are on an island, you need to be able to be self-sustainable, and if the main grid goes down, you still need energy. On Robbin Island, we created a solution with energy storage and solar technology that will allow citizens to have a stable power consumption even if the main grid disappears.

NV: For now, it’s still an emerging transition, but in the future what impact do you think electrification will have on the global economy and the automotive industry as we know it?

It’s clear that all industrial players are looking into electrification solutions, whether it’s industrial application or more cars on the road. There is a tremendous power shift on the market: everything is going in the direction of electrification and fossil-free solutions. The market is going in that direction. The customer demand is going in that direction.

It will help the transformation of the entire energy system. For us, it means a lot more investments in solutions like for example charging stations and infrastructures. In the future, more people will drive electric vehicles, and after work, they will all go home and plug in their car into the grid: this will create a completely different pattern and a need for electrical solutions for the local grid that will take care of peaks in the energy systems. Battery solutions are one way of solving that problem.

NV: If one says “electrification”, generally people’s mind goes to “cars.” However, electrification is much more than that. Could you please give me some details about ABB’s work on sustainable marine transportation?

We are incredibly active in this area, and we see a massive shift in the market towards electrification solutions to build fleets that are entirely battery operated or hybrids mix solutions.

Last year we delivered a project in the south of Sweden where two ferries were completely rebuilt, from diesel engines to a battery-powered solution. We installed giant robotic arms at the docks that operate the charger, the combined battery power of the two ferries – 8,320 kWh – is equivalent to 10,700 car batteries. This new battery solution lowers the emissions across the fleet by more than 50%. They are the world’s largest emission-free electric ferries.

NV: Could you please talk me about ABB’s fast-charging stations: the impact they are having on the environment and their economic impact too.

We have more than 7000 fast-charger installations around the world right now, that’s a massive impact on the environment – we helped save about two million gallons of gasoline over the past seven years, helping produce less CO2 emissions.

Our charging business reached a double-digit annual revenue growth since 2015. We have many projects in Sweden in collaborations with car companies like Volvo. We also have projects in the United States, India, and other European countries. It’s happening all over the place.

NV: Your partnership with Formula E and the ABB FIA Formula E Championship series: Will the developments we see today on the track make their way into the passenger vehicles of the future? How are you “writing the future of e-mobility”?

We are very excited about this partnership. It’s an excellent fit for our company profile and our sustainability goals. It’s fantastic to help show the world that we can continue living the life we want without having an impact on the planet, that we can go from fossil-based transportations to electric transportation thanks to technological enhancements.
Technology development is one of the solutions for creating a sustainable world. Thanks to this partnership, we will push many boundaries when it comes to technological progress.

In the end, all the technological advancements we will have in this business will be used in the rest of the automotive industry too. It will have a big impact, in the long run, both from a messaging point of view on how technology can help create a sustainable future and from the actual technological enhancements that are happening.

It’s great to see that there is more and more interest in Formula E both from cities – that want to be sustainable – and from car racing companies.

NV: All ABB’s achievements are incredible. Is there a future project you are particularly excited about?

I am heading the Industrial Automation Division for ABB Sweden. I am working in the industrial field, and right now we are seeing that the world is becoming more and more digital which means that we need closer partnerships and more complex projects over the boundaries of companies.

We have one project we are running right now in Sweden called Sustainable Underground Mining. It was inaugurated just before summer by the Minister of Innovation and Enterprise Mikael Damberg. Along with LKAB, Combitech, Epiroc and Volvo, we are creating the mining solution of the future. We create solutions for CO2 free and autonomous mining production underground. It’s a revolution, with digitalization and atomization solution we can increase productivity while improving the health of the planet.

Northvolt is also a part of this with the supply of battery solutions that will be needed in drill rigs and other equipment underground. It’s an exciting industrial project.

NV: So automation will be a critical part of all industries?

Automation is already a critical part of all industries. We’ve been active in this area for 50 years, but what’s happening now with digitalization is that more and more things are connected.

With digitalization comes more integration, and you can optimize your production processes over an entire value chain. That is key for every industrial player. We also need to collect a lot more data on each product produced so we can use them to get a competitive advantage. I think Northvolt is a front-runner in this area.

The ideas your Chief Automation Officer, Landon Mossburg , has on pushing the boundaries of automation and digitalization solutions and on how factories should be built up it is very interesting.

Together we are working in a very agile way to develop and deliver the factory of the future. It is a fantastic way of cooperating that is trying to make use of the best knowledge of each involved party.

Northvolt’s ideas on automation and on collecting an enormous amount of data to optimize the usage of the battery packs is an industry 4.0 type of solution. It will give Northvolt a significant competitive advantage in the market.

NV: ABB is one of Northvolt’s strategic partners, key suppliers, and investors. Why do you believe in Northvolt’s project? What kind of impact do you think it will have on Europe’s electrification?

What we discussed so far shows that the demand for lithium-ion batteries is already there in the market and that is increasing enormously by the day. From a supply perspective, I think Northvolt is very well positioned and in right timing for meeting that demand, especially in the European market and the European context.

The way Northvolt is building up its business and strategy is looking extremely promising. I also have the opportunity to work closely with several people from Northvolt: it is an excellent team. They’ve kept its promises, delivered on time, and pushed boundaries. Overall, it’s a fantastic culture and fantastic people, which makes me believe that this will be a great success.