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Meet the foreigners moving to northern Sweden to turn industry green

Meet the foreigners moving to northern Sweden to turn industry green
Hugo and Mariana Pires will move to Luleå in January. Photo: Hugo Pires
Sweden's government believes 100,000 new inhabitants will have to move to the country's two northernmost regions to launch a series of ambitious green industrial projects. The Local met four foreigners who have made the move.

The vast quantities of cheap, renewable electricity available in Norrbotten and Västerbotten, Sweden’s two most northerly counties, are spurring the development of some of the world’s most ambitious green industrial projects. 

Northvolt, the battery gigafactory in the city of Skellefteå, is currently racing to produce its first battery by the end of this year, with the first battery line expected to be up and running in the spring. It is hiring continuously, and when the factory is complete, it will have 4,000 employees.  

Construction is expected to start on H2GreenSteel, an industrial-scale green steel plant in Boden, as soon as next year. The Spanish fertiliser company Fertiberia is setting up a green ammonia project, also in Boden.

Meanwhile, miners LKAB and steel-makers SSAB are together setting up HYBRIT, a green sponge iron demonstration plant, in Gällivare, after which LKAB plans to invest 400 billion Swedish kronor up until 2040 to switch all of its production from iron ore pellets to carbon-free sponge iron. 

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All of these projects will require skilled workers. Peter Larsson, the engineer appointed by Sweden’s government to coordinate the green industrial shift in northern Sweden, estimates that the projects will increase the population in Norrbotten and Västerbotten by 100,000 people. This includes workers at supplier companies, in the public sector, in businesses like shops and restaurants, and their children. 

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Hugo Pires, 42, a Portuguese mining engineer, will move to Luleå full-time with his wife Mariana, 31, this January. He has just spent October and November in Norrbotten preparing to set up the Talga Group’s graphite mine in Vittangi, an hour’s drive outside Kiruna.

Talga has also built a pilot battery anode plant in Luleå, and plans to use the high-quality graphite mined at Vittangi to supply Europe’s growing battery industry. And with Northvolt in nearby Skellefteå, it will potentially have a major local customer. 

“As a human being, I feel a responsibility to be part of the solution,” Pires says of his drive to move from Portugal. “Humanity needs these green projects. It’s a question of, ‘do we keep spoiling our planet and leaving the worst world for our children or do we do it right?'” 

Life in northern Sweden is very different from at home in Lisbon, where social life can go on until late into the night. “Restaurants close really early,” he laughs. “But then life there is adapted to that. It’s normal for people to work from 7am to 4pm.  Life is adapted to the light here.” 

But both he and Mariana, a computer programmer, think Luleå, with its position on the wide Lule River and next door archipelago, is a beautiful city, and they enjoy the outdoor life. “It’s easier to be healthy in Sweden, that’s for sure, and my wife and I both love winter sports.”

Liliana Celedon, an environmental engineer, has moved to Skellefteå because she wants to help in the green transformation. Photo: Private

Liliana Celedon, 28, came to Sweden from Mexico partly to be with her Swedish husband and partly to do a Master’s in Sustainable Engineering at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. In May, she left Stockholm to take a job as a site service controller at Northvolt. “We had our relationship for years with him in Sweden and me in Mexico, so this is pretty much normal,” she smiles.  

For Liliana, Northvolt offered the chance to put what she had learned in her Master’s into practice. “I’m very, very driven to contribute in any way to a sustainable future, and it’s a young company, and I like talented people,” she says of her decision to move north.  

For a woman from Monterrey, where the metropolitan area has over five million people, Skellefteå’s 73,000 population seems small. But at the same time, the access to nature, with hiking in summer and winter sports in the winter, appeals to her adventurous side. 

“I like to try new things that are very different to those in the environment where I was born and raised,” she says. “I’ve been exploring a lot of the outdoor lifestyle because, in Mexico, that’s not what I’m used to.” 

This summer she went hiking in the forests and swimming along Skellefteå’s long Baltic coast, and this winter she is looking forward to skiing and cross-country skiing.

Mox Murugan outside HYBRIT, the fossil-free steel joint venture between SSAB, LKAB, and the power company Vattenfall. Photo: Private

Mox Murugan’s move to Luleå in 2013 predates the start of its green industrial boom, but the former Sydney stockbroker is playing a significant role in bringing green investment to the region. As the investment manager in charge of hydrogen projects for Invest in Norrbotten, he recently helped bring Fertiberia to the region. He is a bullish advocate of the region’s prospects as a hydrogen superpower. 

Mox came to Norrbotten to be with his wife Ann, a Luleå local who moved to Sydney to do a Master’s in Sustainable Development back in 2001. He has come to appreciate what the city has to offer. 

“I’ve always considered myself an urban guy. I used to live in a skyscraper overlooking the city of Sydney on the 41st floor. I never imagined I’d be living close to the Arctic Circle,” he says.

“There’s such beauty here. When I’ve brought people here from Germany, we go into the forest on a winter’s day when there’s a blanket of snow everywhere.

“It’s the silence. The closest I can come is many years ago, when I worked for IBM and tested the new computers they built, in the world’s quietest room. That’s the kind of silence you get when you go into the forest here. Everyone just says, ‘Wow, I never realised how quiet the world can be’. And to me, there’s a beauty in that.” 

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Alistair Coley was drawn to Northvolt by the company’s green mission. Photo: Private

Alistair Coley, 25, a cell production engineer, was already working at Nissan’s battery factory in Sunderland when he took the job at Northvolt. For him, the draw was Northvolt’s ambition to be the greenest battery factory in the world.

Northvolt says it will use 100 percent renewable energy in its production, aims to use recycled materials for half of the battery content by 2030, and is careful about sourcing materials responsibly. 

“Their media and publications are sort of inspiring,” he says. “Other companies think they should get a pat on the back just for just providing batteries for electric cars, but there’s so much more than that. Northvolt’s really trying to act sustainably from the energy perspective, and that’s important to me. It wasn’t about joining any battery business to make money, it was about coming here to make a difference.”

Both he and his fiancee Claudia had been looking for an adventure abroad, with Alistair looking at battery factories in Germany and the US. But they both felt the draw of Sweden. 

“I think it was just how close they are to nature and the expanse of the landscapes. Do you see how beautiful it is? Wherever you drive, it’s just lakes as far as you can go, and I think it’s just amazing.” 

Claudia has already got a job helping new Northvolt recruits move to the city, and they’re now installed, along with their two Labradoodles, in a small wooden house by Skellefteå’s ski track.


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