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Treated as the Master Plan’s trash can, the unique geothermal areas on the Reykjanes peninsula get a particularly harsh deal. Out of the peninsula’s nineteen energy potential areas, only three are listed for protection while seven are set for exploitation in addition to the four that have already been harnessed. Five additional areas are kept pending, more likely than not to be set for exploitation later. Existing plans for energy production outline how the peninsula is set to be turned into a single and continuous industrial zone, and the power companies seem to be simply waiting for a further green light to exploit the area. All this in order to further feed the aluminium industry.
In this overview we take a look at nine of these nineteen areas — those from the west of Gráuhnúkar — of which only one is to be protected according to the Master Plan. We look at the plans on the drawing board, their current status, the key companies involved, the already existing power plants, the threatened areas, and at last but not least: possible targets for direct action. On the map below, these areas are marked from number one to nine. Obviously the map only shows the areas at stake and the reader has to use her or his imagination to fill in power lines and the rest of the necessary infrastructure. Most of the following photos are taken by Ellert Grétarsson — click here and here for more of his photos.
Unmasking the Geothermal Myth
In a world increasingly concerned about carbon emissions,” Jaap Krater and Miriam Rose state, “the clean image of hydroelectric and geothermal energy is appealing.” This has certainly been the case in Iceland, where the highly polluting aluminium industry has attempted to re-model their dirty image by powering their production with so-called ‘green energy’. However, this greenwashing has not entirely worked as the eastern highland’s Kárahnjúkar dams — fully built in 2007 to power an Alcoa aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður — have proven to be as ecologically and economically disastrous as environmentalists warned. As a result the aluminium companies have now mostly moved from hydro and instead are increasingly focussing on geothermal energy.
additional hydro power plants would be needed to power the smelter. This would most likely come from the much-debated and now temporarily halted dams in the river of lower Þjórsá.
Last year, unable to access the necessary geothermal energy in north Iceland, aluminium company Alcoa was forced to withdraw their six years long plan to build a geothermal powered smelter at Bakki, Húsavík. We predict that if Century cannot force through the damming of lower Þjórsá a similar situation awaits Helguvík. But that has not stopped the project’s interested parties, who still state confidently that the smelter will be built, and powered with geothermal energy.
But these are only the very visible impacts of the planned large-scale exploitation. Other environmental catastrophes are in fact inevitable with large scale geothermal industry, becoming increasingly visible to the public as the green reputation of geothermal energy slowly decreases.
Two of Saving Iceland’s spokespersons — ecological economist Jaap Krater and geologist Miriam Rose — have thoroughly analysed the development of Iceland’s geothermal potential in a chapter, written on behalf of Saving Iceland, and recently published in a book on the current energy crisis. While we strongly recommend the piece for further reading about the geothermal myths, a few of their points will be addressed here, with relevance to recent events in Iceland.
here and here.)
Secondly, at the end of last year it was revealed that for two years energy company Reykjavík Energy — who own and operate the Hellisheiði plant — had on occasions been pumping waste water containing hydrogen sulphide into drinking water aquifers. Sulphides are far from being the plants’ only damaging effluents entering our water system; Krater and Rose mention that “geothermal fluids contain high concentrations of heavy metals and other toxic elements, including radon, arsenic, mercury, ammonia, and boron.”
Thirdly, it is suggested that depletion of one geothermal reservoir can result in the drying up of surrounding hot spring areas. While large-scale exploitation in Iceland is probably too young to witness these effects, environmentalists and geologists have warned that exactly this will happen in the Reykjanes peninsula if the existing plans go ahead.
The Key Companies Involved
HS Orka is an energy company that owns and operates two geothermal power plants on the peninsula — Reykjanesvirkjun and Svartsengi — the majority of who’s energy goes to Norðurál’s aluminium smelter in Grundartangi, Hvalfjörður. HS Orka’s majority shareholder is Magma Energy Sweden A.B., a puppet company of the Canadian firm Magma Energy, which was established to get around laws that prevent non-Europeans from buying Icelandic companies. After Magma’s 66,6% share, the remaining 33,4% is owned by Icelandic pension funds.
Before privatisation HS Orka (then called Hitaveita Suðurnesja) was owned fifty-fifty by the Icelandic state and several municipalities on the country’s south-west coast, but in 2007 the state’s share was sold to a private company named Geysir Green Energy (GGE). Following laws passed in 2008, regarding the separation of private energy production from competitive operations, the company became two different firms — HS Veitur and HS Orka — of which the latter takes care of energy production and sales. Bit by bit, GGE bought up two thirds of HS Orka’s shares. In 2009, GGE sold extra 10% to Magma Energy, which at the same time bought 32% from another energy company, Reykjavík Energy, and the nearby municipality of Hafnarfjörður. At this point GGE owned 55% of HS Orka and Magma owned 43%.
However, in 2010 Geysir Green Energy sold all their shares to Magma, which now owned 98.5% of HS Orka. A year later Magma sold 25% to Jarðvarmi slhf, a company owned by fourteen Icelandic pension funds, which a little later bought additional 8.4%. At last, Magma bought the 1.5% still owned by four different municipalities. Thus Magma holds 66.6% of the shares today, while Jarðvarmi owns 33.4%. The land use rights held by Magma allow for 65 years exploitation with an option to extend this for another 65 years.
Just as the name could not have been coloured with more controversy and scepticism, Magma Energy merged with Plutonic Power and became Alterra Power, a company traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The new company’s Executive Chairman Ross Beaty, said that the merger would “strengthen both companies and […] create a larger, more diversified renewable energy company.” He further stated: “Geothermal will remain a core focus of the new company, but hydro, wind and solar assets will be solid business platforms for future growth. In the renewable energy business, bigger is better and this combination will achieve that while enhancing returns to each company’s shareholders.”
For the last three decades in fact Beaty has founded and divested a series of mineral resource companies, but has now shifted his focus to the ever-enlarging economy of ‘green energy’. As he explained himself: “This time around I wanted to build something green, so I looked at geothermal and it was just perfect, it just fit”. When confronted with the possibility that he and his company were taking advantage of Iceland’s economic collapse — a theory supported by the words of John Perkins, the author of ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’ — he called such ideas “ignorance and complete nonsense.” Only a few months later, he nevertheless said to Hera Research Monthly, an online investment newsletter, that “going into Iceland was strictly something that could only have happened because Iceland had a calamitous financial meltdown in 2008.”
Norðurál is a subsidiary of North-American aluminium producer Century Aluminum, whose largest shareholder is commodity broker Glencore International, a company that controls almost 40% of the global aluminium market. Glencore is mostly known for its many tentacles of corruption and worldwide human rights and environmental violations — most recently manifested in the exposure of child-labour in the company’s copper mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the dumping of acid into a river at another site in the same country.
Norðurál currently operates an aluminium smelter in Hvalfjörður, which was fully built in 1998 despite harsh opposition by the fjord’s inhabitants. The smelter has been enlarged in a few phases, seeing the production capacity going from the original 60 thousand tons per year, to the current 278 thousand tons. Since 2004, the company has invested 20 billion ISK into building another Iceland smelter, in Helguvík on the north-west tip of the Reykjanes peninsula. According to the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the smelter is supposed to be powered solely by the peninsula’s geothermal energy — a claim that environmentalists and geologists have seriously questioned.
Already Existing Power Plants
Reykjanesvirkjun is a 100 MW plant, owned by Alterra Power, whose energy partly powers Norðurál’s smelter in Hvalfjörður. It is located on 410 hectares of land located at the south-west tip of the peninsula. The company has plans for at least an 80 MW expansion of the plant, which is supposed to take place in two 50 and 30 MW phases, that according to HS Orka should both be completed in 2013.
the field is already over-exploited. His claim is based on studies from 2009, by the very same NEA, which state that the area’s long-term sustainable production capacity is hardly more than 25 MW.
The Svartsengi plant is operated by HS Orka and is located on 150 hectares of land owned partly by the municipality of Grindavík and partly privately. Next to it stands the Blue Lagoon, a tourist attraction created by the brine pollution from the power plant. The plant is a combined electricity and heat plant with a current electric power capacity of 75 MW, of which most goes to Norðurál’s smelter in Hvalfjörður.
The Threatened Areas
The Master Plan gives a green light for the exploitation of Eldvörp, a 15 km long row of craters, located four km south-west of Svartsengi. Svartsengi and Eldvörp are thought to share a geothermal aquifer, which many claim to be fully exploited already. Thus even the smallest energy production would be unsustainable. Alterra Power still has plans to build a 50 MW power plant in Eldvörp, for which both research and utilization leaves have been granted. The planned plant is on land owned by the municipality of Grindavík, which apparently is about to finish the required land use plan enabling the project to take place.
The geothermal field is situated at the heart of the row of craters. There are only a few signs of geothermal activity on the actual surface, only fumaroles the lavafield and steam wisps when the weather is mild. One single borehole has already been constructed close to one of the craters at the centre of Eldvörp. It’s environmental impact is very limited compared with the impacts of the planned over-all drilling and the appendant pipelines, power lines, roads, powerhouse separator building. Such construction will have enormously destructive impacts on both natural and cultural relics in the area, including the row of craters and the Sundvörðuhraun lavafield.
Stóra-Sandvík is a unique geothermal field in a coastal area close to the municipalities of Grindavík and Hafnir, as well as to the Reykjanesvirkjun plant, which in itself should be reason enough to move it from the exploitation category and instead to protection.
This geothermal area consists of four subfields — Sandfell, Trölladyngja, Sveifluháls and Austurengjar — which all connect to the same volcanic system, usually just named Krýsuvík. The geothermal activity is located at the margins of the system’s fissure swarms, while the Núpshliðarháls tuff ridge lies closer to its centre, with thousands of years old lava flats and eruptive fissures on both sides. Where the tuff has tightened due to geothermal transformations, small streams flow on to the lavafields and have thus created vegetated areas such as Höskuldsvellir, Selsvellir, Vigdísarvellir and Tjarnarvellir. As from the west of Hellisheiði, hardly any water runs on the surface of the whole Reykjanes mountain range, save the above-mentioned areas of Krýsuvík.
Out of the four Krýsuvík areas, the Energy Master Plan allows for the exploitation of Sandfell and Sveifluháls, while Trölladyngja and Austurengjar are supposed to be pending until the results of drilling in the two former areas are known. The National Energy Authority claims that these combined 89 km2 of land should have the production capacity of 445 MW of energy for 50 years, and as such be Iceland’s third most powerful geothermal field after the Hengill and Törfajökull areas. However, independent scientists and environmentalists have seriously questioned these figures, believing the area’s maximum possible production capacity to be 120 MW for 50 years.
Sandfell area is a semi-unspoiled volcanic area of lavafields and tuff mountains, large vegetated flatlands, and beautifully formed craters. It is a uniquely colourful area, which will be permanently altered if HS Orka’s planned 50 MW power plant will be built. The company has already been granted permission for test drilling and one borehole has been test-drilled, but no results have yet been published.
There are plans to operate a 50-100 MW power plant in the area — a construction that would include somewhere between 10 and 20 boreholes, road construction, pipelines and power lines to connect the plant to the national energy grid. HS Orka has a research leave in the area but has not been able to guarantee the utilization rights, which are owned by the municipality of Hafnarfjörður.
The geothermal area of Austurengjar is about 1.5 km east of lake Grænavatn — a relatively flat and mostly unspoiled area of mud pots, hot springs and dolerite ridges, which slopes north to lake Kleifarvatn. As a result of earthquakes in 1924, the geyser activity increased dramatically and since then, Austurengjahver has been the area’s most powerful spring. This colourful geothermal area is special as it lies completely outside of Krýsuvík’s volcanic system and shows no signs of Holocene volcanic activity. The plans for a 50 MW power plant at Austurengjar, including 10 to 15 boreholes and a whole lot of power lines, would directly impact the whole area and change the face of lake Kleifarvatn, which is today a wild and unspoilt lake, surrounded by mountains.
Only one out of the peninsula’s nine potential energy generating areas will be protected if the Master Plan goes through parliament unaltered. Brennisteinsfjöll are a row of mountains, considered an impenetrable part of the Krýsuvík area, and do in fact constitute the largest untouched wilderness around the capital area of Reykjavík. As highlighted by Krater and Rose: “Wilderness areas are becoming rare globally, with over 83 percent of the earth’s landmass directly affected by humans, and the Icelandic wilderness is one of the largest left in Europe.”
Possible Targets for Protests and Direct Actions
The Ministry of Environment
The Ministry of Industry
Arnarhváll by Lindargata
Norðurál Grundartangi ehf (smelter and offices)
Norðurál Helguvík ehf (only offices)
See location on map here.
Century Aluminum Company (Corporate Headquarters)
2511 Garden Road
Building A, Suite 200
For a list of more offices and smelter click here.
Alterra Power Corp. (Corporate Offices)
600-888 Dunsmuir Street
Canada V6C 3K4
For a list of more Alterra Power offices click here.
P.O. Box 777
CH 6341 Baar
Áhugahópur um verndun Jökulsánna í Skagafirði, Eldvötn – samtök um náttúruvernd í Skaftárhreppi, Félag um verndun hálendis Austurlands, Framtíðarlandið, Fuglavernd, Landvernd, Náttúruvaktin, Náttúruverndarsamtök Austurlands (NAUST), Náttúruverndarsamtök Íslands, Náttúruverndarsamtök Suðurlands, Náttúruverndarsamtök Suðvesturlands, Samtök um náttúruvernd á Norðurlandi (SUNN), Sól á Suðurlandi. Umsögn um drög að tillögu til þingsályktunar um áætlun um vernd og orkunýtingu landsvæða. 11. nóvember 2011. (Download PDF here.)
Krater and Miriam Rose on behalf of Saving Iceland, “Development of Iceland’s Geothermal Energy Potential for Aluminum Production — A Critical Analysis”. In: Abrahamsky, K. (ed.) Sparking a World-wide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World. 2010, AK Press, Edinburgh. p. 319-333. (Download PDF here.)
Various information from Náttúrukortið (The Nature Map) on the website of environmentalist NGO Framtíðarlandið (The Future Land).
Sigmundur Einarsson, Hinar miklu orkulindir Íslands, Smugan.is, October 2009.
Sigmundur Einarsson, Er HS Orka í krísu í Krýsuvík?, Smugan.is, November 2009.
Sigmundur Einarsson, Ómerkilegur útúrsnúningur iðnaðarráðherra, Smugan.is, November 2011.
Sigmundur Einarsson, Er HS Orka á heljarþröm?, Smugan.is, December 2011.
Catharine Fulton, Blame Canada? Geothermal energy, Swedish shelf companies and the privatisation of Iceland, The Reykjavík Grapevine, October 2009.
Catharine Fulton, Magma Energy Lied to Us, The Reykjavík Grapevine, May 2010.
Volcano Park to Open in Iceland? Iceland Review, July 2007.
This simply means that until spring last year, the police literally had a carte blanche regarding whom to spy on and for whatever reasons they chose. Unbeknownst the public, the instructions allowed unrestricted espionage.
“Good things happen slowly,” Björn Bjarnason, Iceland’s former Minister of Justice, wrote on his blog in March of last year when his successor in office, Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson, called for a press conference to announce that the police would soon be granted proactive investigation powers.
While Ögmundur and other Left Green MPs often criticised Björn for his aggressive efforts to increase police powers during the latter’s six years in office, he is now advocating for increased police powers as part of The State’s crusade against purported organised crime, which is believed to be predominantly manifested in a number of motorcycle gangs, including the Hells Angels.
A bill that he proposed to parliament last month does not contain the infinite investigation powers that the police have openly asked for, but does nevertheless allow them to start investigating people who they believe are planning acts that would fall under the category of organised crime and are punishable by at least four years of imprisonment.
While the case is usually presented as the police’s struggle to gain greater justifiable investigative powers — in which they have supposedly not fully succeeded — the fact is that, from at least July 1999 to May 2011, the police had unrestricted authority to monitor whomever they wanted due to poorly defined regulations. Read More
German MP Andrej Hunko states that European police authorities are overtly and covertly planning increased surveillance of activists
Perhaps this is no longer common knowledge, but it still is a documented fact that the police authorities in the Western world operated in such a way throughout the whole of the 20th century.
“Though we have not yet managed to change the laws, we have managed to bring attention to the cause, which is very important.” So says Andrej Hunko who lately has been struggling against police spying on people involved with social movements in Europe. Hunko, who is a MP for the German left-wing party ‘Die Linke’, is concerned about the increased use of such espionage, especially as movements located on the political left wing are increasingly labelled as “leftist extremist and terrorists groups” that “have to” be monitored closely.
“I am concerned about this development. I am utterly opposed to the systematic criminalisation of international activists.” Among other things, Hunko, who is a member of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs of the European Parliament, points out that plans are now being made to co-ordinate the laws of the member-states of the European Union, so that police spies from one country will be able to operate in another country without the special permissions that have been required. Hunko believes that this will subvert the work of social movements in Europe. “All this is happening very quickly and without an informed discussion, neither among members of national parliaments nor among members of the European Parliament, not to mention the public in those countries.” Read More
Mar 30 2012
river Þjórsá might have been temporarily saved from destruction, the unique geothermal areas of the Reykjanes peninsula will be included in the Master Plan’s exploitation category. If these plans go through unaltered, the good majority of the geothermal areas will be harnessed and destroyed, most likely for Century Aluminum’s blundering aluminium smelting project in Helguvík.
In one of Saving Iceland’s articles from last year, in response to the publication of a proposition for a parliamentary resolution regarding the Energy Master Plan, we mentioned environmentalists “clear opposition to the planned exploitation of certain wonders of nature, one example being the geothermal areas on the Reykjanes peninsula.”
Ellert Grétarsson, a photographer who has documented these areas extensively, fears that the drilling in Krýsuvík – covering between five and eight thousand square meters of land – will simply kill the area. And as a matter of fact, Ellert says, the whole Reykjanes peninsula will be riddled with energy construction. Hjörleifur Guttormsson, former Left Green MP and a genuine environmentalists, shares Ellert’s worries and has asked for an integral study of Reykjanes before any decisions are made.
In order to highlight the uniqueness of those magnificent areas, the recently established Nature Conservation Association of South-West Iceland has now published a web book with photos of the Reykjanes peninsula’s threatened geothermal areas. The photos in the book, titled The Reykjanes Peninsula: The Energy Master Plan’s Trash Can, are by aforementioned Ellert Grétarsson, whose photos decorate many of the articles published here on Saving Iceland’s website. The book can be viewed here:
Read more about the Energy Master Plan by following the Master Plan tag.
Mar 11 2012
Since the publication of the long-awaited Energy Master Plan’s second phase in July last year, a good part of the discussion regarding the plan has been centred around the Þjórsá river, especially as the two concerned ministers — Minister of Environment Svandís Svavarsdóttir and Minister of Industry Katrín Júlíusdóttir — presented their proposition for a parliamentary resolution for the Master Plan, wherein the three Þjórsá dams were included. Following a three months long public commentary process — including 225 commentaries by individuals, organizations and companies, of which more than 70 had specifically to do with Þjórsá — the above-mentioned ministers have been working on amending their proposal in order for it to go through parliamentary discussion before the end of parliament sessions this spring.
The Energy Master Plan, which is supposed to lay the foundation for a long-term settlement upon the future exploitation and protection of Iceland natural resources, is split into three categories, of which two are quite clear, titled “exploitation” and “protection”, but the third one, titled “in waiting”, has pretty much been the bone of contention. On the one hand those in favour of extreme energy extraction believe that too many exploitable areas are being kept in waiting, while on the other hand environmentalists think that many of the areas categorized as in waiting should rather be moved straight into the protection category. Read More
Mar 11 2012
On the twenty-fourth anniversary of a disaster which saw a British water-reserve accidentally poisoned with aluminium—eventually killing at least one person—The Telegraph considers how aluminium affects our day-to-day health, now that the metal is used in most household and medical products we consume.
With aluminium known to be such a poisonous metal, a serious investigation into the effects of aluminium production on the health of smelter workers and nearby communities is surely badly needed.
commented the German MP Andrej Hunko, regarding reports in the Guardian daily newspaper.
Eight women have filed legal action against the Metropolitan Police. Five officers have been named that have infiltrated leftist movements since the 1980’s, and used deceit to create sexual relationships with these women. Among them is the former undercover officer Mark Kennedy, who worked for the German police in the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern und Baden-Wuerttemberg. The open statement of these women contradicts the claims of Kennedy, that he only had sexual relationships with two women.
Andrej Hunko further stated:
“The courageous step of these eight women must also have consequences in Germany.
According to media reports, Kennedy was operating in 22 countries. It follows then, that Kennedy likely also used such illegal tactics in these countries. In my opinion, the Kennedy operations went against the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8, which protects the rights for private and family life, including the right to form relationships without unjustified interference by the state. Read More
Originally published in the Reykjavík Grapevine.
Criminal court cases, waged by The State against political dissidents for acts of protest and civil disobedience, can be understood in two ways. Firstly, the juridical system can be seen as a wholly legitimate platform for solving social conflicts. Such a process then results with a verdict delivered by Lady Justice’s independent agents—a ruling located somewhere on the scale between full punishment and absolute acquittal. According to this view, it is at this point only that a punishment possibly enters the picture. And only if deserved.
Secondly—and herein lies a fundamental difference—the original decision to press charges can be seen as a punishment in itself, regardless of the final verdict. With these two points of understanding in mind, two recent verdicts, which have not received much attention, are worth observing.
You Shall Not Run
Number one is the case against Haukur Hilmarsson and Jason Slade who in June 2008, while attempting to stop an airplane from departing, and thereby deporting Kenyan asylum seeker Paul Ramses to Italy, ran onto a closed-off area at the Leifur Eiríksson International Airport in Keflavík. To shorten a long and complicated story (covered in-length here) their political sprint snowballed into protests of all kinds, eventually bringing the asylum seeker back to Iceland, where he and his family were granted an asylum. Read More
Dec 09 2011
These news echo the many warnings made by the opponents of the cluster of five dams at Kárahnjúkar and nearby Eyjabakkar, who repeatedly stated that the project’s alleged profitability was nothing but an illusion, but were systematically silenced by Iceland’s authorities.
Now, as these facts finally become established in the media—this time straight from the horse’s mouth—similarly bad news has arrived regarding another big Icelandic energy company. Reykjavík Energy has failed to make a profit from their 2007 and 2008 investments, effectively making them lose money.
And yet, more dams, geothermal power-plants and aluminium smelters are on the drawing table—presented as the only viable way out of the current economic crisis. Read More
Dec 02 2011
Google Earth Tour Reveals How a Global Dam Boom Could Worsen the Climate Crisis
International Rivers and Friends of the Earth International have teamed up to create a state-of-the-art Google Earth 3-D tour and video narrated by Nigerian activist Nnimmo Bassey, winner of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award. The production was launched on the first day of the COP 17 climate meeting in Durban. The video and tour allow viewers to explore why dams are not the right answer to climate change, by learning about topics such as reservoir emissions, dam safety, and adaptation while visiting real case studies in Africa, the Himalayas and the Amazon.