"Working on a project having an impact on society means working towards a better world"

Jérôme Mathot is 32 years old and is responsible for supervising the construction of the new converter station for the ALEGrO project. 32 is young, but for transmission system operator Elia, a person's worth is not measured in years. The young engineer sees this as an excellent opportunity to tackle the technical and human challenges posed by such an assignment.

Elia, the operator of Belgium's high-voltage grid, rolled out the ALEGrO project to establish the first interconnector between the Belgian and German grids. "This project uses High-Voltage Direct Current, or HVDC, a truly cutting-edge technology," says Jérôme, ALEGrO project manager. "It is the second interconnector of its kind in Belgium, with the first connecting the country to the UK."

Connecting grids

An HVDC interconnector comprises two converter stations connected by two cables. "The converter station we're building in Lixhe in the province of Liège will be connected to Elia's grid," explains the project manager. "It converts alternating current from the grid into direct current and transports it to Germany." A similar station in Oberzier, Germany, converts this direct current back into alternating current and injects it into the German grid.

Two 90-km-long underground high-voltage cables transport the direct current between the two stations. "Most of the cable route on the Belgian side runs alongside existing key infrastructure, with one segment being laid through a tunnel under the Albert Canal and the River Meuse. ALEGrO has a transmission capacity of around 1,000 MW, equal to the generation capacity of a nuclear power plant."

This interconnector allows electricity to be transported from Belgium to Germany, and vice versa, as necessary, resulting in a better balance between generation and consumption. Commissioning is scheduled for late 2020.

Rapid progress

Jérôme joined Elia in 2011 after obtaining his degree in electromechanical engineering from the University of Liège. "I started out as a technical expert and my work soon turned to direct current, more specifically to amassing expertise in HVDC technology."

Jérôme Mathot was involved in preparations for ALEGrO: conducting market research, devising technical specifications, conducting European procurement procedures, evaluating tenders, selecting contractors, and so on, up to the conclusion of the contract in 2016. "I've worked on the ALEGrO project ever since. At first I dealt with the high-voltage aspects but in 2019 I was tasked with managing the Belgian converter station project. I'm now responsible for ensuring that construction and commissioning align with the set schedule, budget and quality requirements. ALEGrO also needs to be integrated into the existing infrastructure in order for us to control the station remotely from our national dispatching centre in Schaerbeek and the regional dispatching centre in Namur."

A wide-ranging assignment

"The job is always changing," continues Jérôme. "In addition to the electrical installation, the 10,000 m² building will be equipped with heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, fire detection and fighting systems, control and protection systems, and so on. The site is home to a multitude of different professions and skills. I'm supported by a multidisciplinary team of project engineers, technical experts and draughtsmen. In addition to handling the technical, financial, scheduling and team aspects of the project, we are also responsible for safety, which is paramount. We ensure compliance with procedures and the safety culture on site, which allows us to minimise risks."

Building a better future

Working on a project of this scale is extremely enriching from both a technical and human point of view, emphasises Jérôme. "Society is becoming increasingly aware of climate change and the need for action. Making use of renewable energies is just one way we could reduce our impact on the environment. Working on a project like ALEGrO, which promotes the integration of renewable energy, means that you're contributing to a carbon-free world. It gives your work meaning and you feel proud knowing that you're working towards a better world. Moreover, I had the chance to take part in all phases of the project, from design to implementation."

A range of advantages

According to the engineer, there are also a lot of advantages to working for the transmission system operator. "Elia offers an attractive salary package, training courses, flexible working hours and the chance to work from home, as well as encouraging you to take advantage of internal mobility," sums up the project manager. "The energy sector is changing radically and is facing many challenges like the integration of renewable energy, the decentralisation of generation and the emergence of new technologies, to name but a few. Elia wants to be a driving force behind this transition. At Elia, there's no shortage of ways to speed up this transition while continuing to safeguard society's interests."

De Tijd, 2020