An interview with Heinz-Peter Allmer, Head of Verbund Hydro Power, Lower Danube

“Hydropower makes it possible to provide electric current from the river’s current.”

Heinz-Peter Allmer is used to receiving compliments on the amazing view from his office – a panoramic expanse of water stretching northward between its lush, tree-lined banks – at the Verbund Hydropower Plant Freudenau which sits right in the middle of the Danube.

“Most people don’t realize that I work not only with the Danube, I work in the Danube,” Allmer said.

He rarely gets to enjoy it nowadays, however, as he oversees the production and maintenance of the entire hydropower network along the stretch of the river that passes through Vienna and Lower Austria. The entire system provides about 60 percent of the country’s electricity, which makes Austria a leader in hydropower usage in Europe. Standing below the massive turbine through which the Danube flows, the volume of water is both palpable and audible – about two million liters per second. One can only imagine what it sounded like during the 2013 floodwaters, when the rate was six-fold.

But for Allmer, 57, the biggest flood in the life of the plant (built in 1993), and one of the worst in Austria in the last 150 years, did not present the biggest challenge of his career. “That was a kind of test run for this plant, which it passed with no problem,” Allmer said. “We had already taken all measures to meet the municipal standards, so for us, it was not a catastrophe, more like a ‘special case.’”

The bigger challenge Allmer and his team face involves a few centimeters – 10 to be exact – the acceptable variation in the plant’s reservoir so that the water level throughout the network is kept constant. Any variation above or below this tiny margin would create an imbalance that could affect ship’s ability to maneuver through the locks or cross under bridges on the Danube.

“You could compare it to a bathtub where you have to keep an eye on the drain,” he explained, looking down on the reservoir and out on the magnificent river beyond. As luck would have it, on this brilliantly sunny day, the Danube was actually blue.