Energy in flow

To get on the track of green energy, all it takes is a few steps on the pedals. Austria's oldest hydroelectric power station is waiting to be discovered.

The Danube unites many a contrast. It is a quiet, natural refuge, a place of retreat where thoughts come to rest. At the same time, it is restless, wild and always on the move. Anyone who cycles along its banks knows that it’s full of energy.

In the truest sense of the word, the hydroelectric power plants on the Lower Austrian Danube supply almost two million households with electricity. This makes our longest river not only Austria's most important energy supplier, but it also plays a key role in the energy transition. As a renewable energy source, hydropower plants do not produce any climate-damaging fuels. But how does it work at all? How does current become electricity?

If you want to take a look behind the scenes of hydropower, the best place to get out of the saddle is Ybbs-Persenbeug. The Ybbs-Persenbeug visitor power station, the fourth most powerful in Austria, is located here. Together with the other Danube power plants Wallsee, Melk, Altenwörth and Greifenstein, it forms the backbone of the domestic electricity supply.

It was 16 years ago when it opened its doors to the first visitors, and today it is already one of the most popular destinations in the region. No wonder, as the inner workings of the power plant reveal a pretty spectacular sight - enormous machine rooms, rotating generators and turbines with the diameter of a detached house.

Tamara Leeb is a guide and managing director of the operator association Donaukraftwerksführungen in Ybbs-Persenbeug. She has been guiding groups through the premises for almost 15 years, she knows every nook and cranny, every nozzle, every lever and yet she has never found her workplace boring. "You can feel the power of the Danube. That impresses me anew every day after 15 years".

But the most beautiful thing about her job, says Tamara Leeb, is the awe from the children. The moment, for example, when they realise that electricity does not just come out of the socket, but has to travel a long way before it reaches their home. And she is certain that "Anyone who has seen how electricity is produced will also use it more responsibly".

But it's not boring away from the machine rooms either. In interactive stations, all those who still have strength in their legs after the bike ride can power a turbine generator and generate electricity themselves. Those who want to save their energy for the way home, can use virtual reality to look through the metre-thick walls and observe the inner workings of the machines.

One thing is certain. Clean energy is probably one of the most important issues of our time with regard to the consequences of climate change. Tamara Leeb, who increasingly guides visitors from abroad through the power plant walls, notices this too. "Internationally, we in Austria are true pioneers in hydropower". This is particularly true of the Ybbs-Persenbeug hydropower plant. At 64 years old, it is the oldest in Austria.

This is one of the reasons why the power plant has been extensively renovated in recent years. All six turbines and generators dating from the 1950s, for example, were replaced with more highly efficient machine sets. "The heart of the power plant is now state-of-the-art", says Tamara Leeb.

And perhaps that is another contrast that the Danube shares. It is a historical place, but also one that points to the future. For that reason alone, it's worth getting off your bike and dropping by.