'Economics' Tag Archive

Jul 30 2015

Time to Occupy the Smelters?

Helga Katrín Tryggvadóttir

Icelanders are notoriously bad investors. Once someone has a business idea, everyone jumps on the wagon and invests in exactly the same thing. The infamous growth of the banking sector is one example, before the 2008 banking crash the Icelandic banking sector was 12 times the size of the GDP and Iceland was supposed to become an international financial centre. I have no idea how anyone got the idea that an island with three hundred thousand inhabitants could become an international financial centre, but many people in Iceland considered this a perfectly normal ambition.

And then there are the politicians, they have had the same investment idea for more than hundred years. Either it is building an artificial fertiliser factory, or it is building an aluminium smelter. Last year one MP proposed building an artificial fertiliser factory, in order to “lure home” young Icelanders who have moved abroad. A majority of those have moved abroad to educate themselves, but sure, who doesn’t want to use their PhD on the factory floor?

Now there is an Icelandic investor in the North of Iceland, Ingvar Skúlason, who is planning on building an aluminium smelter, at a time when aluminium prices have been dropping due to overproduction. He has already managed to sign a deal with a Chinese company, NFC, which is willing, he says, to pay for the whole construction, yet the smelter would be owned by Icelandic companies. All of this sounds kind of dubious in my ears. And everyone can see that this is not a good idea, even the banks, with a new report released by Arion Bank advising against more investment in the aluminium industry. The bank bases its analysis on the fact that aluminium price is too low at the moment to bring any profit into the country (since the price for the electricity is connected with the price of aluminium, the price the aluminium smelters pay to the National power company (LV) is low when aluminium prices are low).

But that does not stop the politicians from supporting the idea. The prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, was present when Skúlason signed a deal with the Chinese company, praising the initiative. Skúlason also claims to have support from the Minister of Industry, which is not surprising since her only campaign promise was building an aluminium smelter and get the “wheels of the economy rolling”. Recently, Alcoa World Alumina, owned by Alcoa Inc., admitted to having bribed officials in Barein. In Iceland, however, they have never had to pay any bribes. Icelandic officials have been more than willing to do their service for free, “bending all the rules” as Friðrik Sophusson, former head of LV, was caught on tape saying.

There are currently three aluminium smelters in Iceland. Together, they use 80% of the energy produced in the country and their profit account for 60 billion ISK a year (USD 500 million). Yet, a majority of the profit is registered as debt to their parent companies abroad, leaving the Icelandic subsidiaries operated in debt but creating profits to the parent companies. The only profit that is left in the country is the wages they pay to their employees, and that only accounts to less than 1% of the national revenue. The jobs they create (which is usually the main argument for their construction), also account for less than 1% of all jobs in Iceland. The price they pay for the energy is also below the normal market price. Lets think about this for a second: 80% of the electricity produced in the country goes to international corporations that only produce 1% of the national revenue and creates 1% of the jobs, exports the majority of the profits and pays below-market price for the energy. So, 99% of the people do not get any share in the majority of its electricity production. Sounds familiar.

Maybe it is time to occupy the smelters?

Aug 22 2014

Large Dams Just Aren’t Worth the Cost

By Jacques Leslie

Sunday Review

New York Times

Thayer Scudder, the world’s leading authority on the impact of dams on poor people, has changed his mind about dams.

A frequent consultant on large dam projects, Mr. Scudder held out hope through most of his 58-year career that the poverty relief delivered by a properly constructed and managed dam would outweigh the social and environmental damage it caused. Now, at age 84, he has concluded that large dams not only aren’t worth their cost, but that many currently under construction “will have disastrous environmental and socio-economic consequences,” as he wrote in a recent email.

Mr. Scudder, an emeritus anthropology professor at the California Institute of Technology, describes his disillusionment with dams as gradual. He was a dam proponent when he began his first research project in 1956, documenting the impact of forced resettlement on 57,000 Tonga people in the Gwembe Valley of present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe. Construction of the Kariba Dam, which relied on what was then the largest loan in the World Bank’s history, required the Tonga to move from their ancestral homes along the Zambezi River to infertile land downstream. Mr. Scudder has been tracking their disintegration ever since.

Once cohesive and self-sufficient, the Tonga are troubled by intermittent hunger, rampant alcoholism and astronomical unemployment. Desperate for income, some have resorted to illegal drug cultivation and smuggling, elephant poaching, pimping and prostitution. Villagers still lack electricity.

Mr. Scudder’s most recent stint as a consultant, on the Nam Theun 2 Dam in Laos, delivered his final disappointment. He and two fellow advisers supported the project because it required the dam’s funders to carry out programs that would leave people displaced by the dam in better shape than before the project started. But the dam was finished in 2010, and the programs’ goals remain unmet. Meanwhile, the dam’s three owners are considering turning over all responsibilities to the Laotian government — “too soon,” Mr. Scudder said in an interview. “The government wants to build 60 dams over the next 20 or 30 years, and at the moment it doesn’t have the capacity to deal with environmental and social impacts for any single one of them.

“Nam Theun 2 confirmed my longstanding suspicion that the task of building a large dam is just too complex and too damaging to priceless natural resources,” he said. He now thinks his most significant accomplishment was not improving a dam, but stopping one: He led a 1992 study that helped prevent construction of a dam that would have harmed Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of the world’s last great wetlands.

Part of what moved Mr. Scudder to go public with his revised assessment was the corroboration he found in a stunning Oxford University study published in March in Energy Policy. The study, by Atif Ansar, Bent Flyvbjerg, Alexander Budzier and Daniel Lunn, draws upon cost statistics for 245 large dams built between 1934 and 2007. Without even taking into account social and environmental impacts, which are almost invariably negative and frequently vast, the study finds that “the actual construction costs of large dams are too high to yield a positive return.” Read More

May 26 2012
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Renewable Resources, Unsustainable Utilization

In April this year, Iceland’s Ministers of the Environment and of Industry presented a parliamentary resolution for Iceland’s Energy Master Plan, in which the controversial plans to dam river Þjórsá are put on hold while the unique geothermal areas of the Reykjanes Peninsula are set for a monstrous exploitation — one that will turn the peninsula into a continuous industrial zone. For the last weeks, the resolution has been in the hands of the Industries Committee of Iceland’s parliament — a process that included more than 300 letters of remarks, sent in by individuals, associations, institutions and corporations.

The remarks can generally be split into two groups based on senders and views: firstly, individuals and environmentalist associations who above all protest the afore-mentioned plans for the Reykjanes peninsula; secondly, companies and institutions with vested interests in the further heavy industrialization of Iceland who demand that the Master Plan’s second phase goes unaltered through parliament — that is, as it was before the parliamentary resolution was presented, in which the planned Þjórsá dams and other hydro power plants are included in the exploitation category.

One of the remarks sent in differs from the others as it evaluates energy production and nature conservation in a larger, long-term context. That remark, written by Helga Katrín Tryggvadóttir, MA in development studies, is published here below, translated from Icelandic by Saving Iceland.

I find myself inclined to make a few remarks regarding the Industries Committee’s discussion about the Energy Master Plan. My remarks do not concern particular natural areas but rather the comprehensive ideas regarding the scope and nature of the protection and exploitation of natural areas. Since the making of the Energy Master Plan begun, much has changed for the better as researches and knowledge on energy production and nature conservation continuously advance. The social pattern as well as opinions on nature conservation have also changed rapidly since the first draft for an Energy Master Plan was published, and the emphasis on nature conservation constantly increases. With this in mind it is necessary to take into account that during the next years, this emphasis on nature conservation is likely to increase even further. Therefore it is important for the Industries Committee to remember that keeping natural areas in pending does not prevent future utilization, whereas areas exploited today cannot be protected tomorrow.

Unsustainable Utilization

The many negative impacts of geothermal and hydro power plants have not been discussed thoroughly enough in Iceland. This can probably be explained by the the fact that these are renewable energy sources and thereby, people tend to view them as positive options for energy production. Thus we often hear that it is better to operate energy intensive industries here, using renewable energy sources, rather than in countries where the same industries are powered by electricity produced by coals and oil. However, when these issues are looked at it more accurately, we have to be aware of the fact that despite hydro and geothermal power’s renewability, their current utilization in Iceland is by no means sustainable.

Using the hydraulic head of glacial rivers, hydro power plants require reservoirs which deplete vegetated land, the reservoirs get filled with mud and by time the area becomes an eroded land. When it comes to geothermal areas, exploited for energy production, the seizure of fluid is much greater than the inflow into the geothermal reservoir and therefore the geothermal power dries up by time. At that point the area has to rest for a time still unknown in the geothermal sciences. Thus it is clear that although we are dealing with renewable energy sources, they do not at all allow for infinite energy production, and additionally the power plants themselves entail environmental destruction. It is clear that the utilization of these resources has to be executed very carefully, and preferably, all further utilization plans should be put on hold until it is possible to learn from the experience of the plants built in the very recent past.

CO2 Emission

A lot of emphasis has been put on the idea that Iceland possesses huge amounts of “green energy,” meaning that this energy does not burn fossil fuels. Thereby it is assumed that no CO2 emission takes place. This is, however, far from the truth: in 2008 the CO2 emission from geothermal plants in Iceland amounted to 185 thousand tons, which is 6% of the country’s total CO2 emission1. Hydro dams also add to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere: big reservoirs cause the drowning of vegetated land, wherein rotting vegetation emits methane gas, increasing global warming. It is estimated that about 7% of carbon emitted by humans come from such constructions2. The sediment of glacial rivers affects the ocean’s ecosystems and nourishes algae vegetation by the seashore. Marine organisms play an important part in extracting carbon from the atmosphere; it is estimated that such vegetation extracts about 15 times more of CO2 than a woodland of the same size3. Annually, the ocean is believed to extract 11 billion tons of CO2 emitted by men4. By damming glacial rivers, entailing disturbance of their sediment and of algae vegetation, Icelanders are not only threatening the fish stocks around the country, and thus the country’s fishing industry, but also further contributing to global warming in a way which is more dangerous than deforestation, though the latter has undergone much harsher criticism worldwide than the destruction of oceanic ecosystems.

Geothermal Power Plants

In the Energy Master Plan’s second phase, possible geothermal power plants are listed in 20 out of the 25 highest seats of exploitation. If the planned hydro dams, Hvamms- and Holtavirkjun, in river Þjórsá will be kept in pending — which I rejoice as a resident of the Skeiða- og Gnúpverjahreppur region — geothermal power plants will occupy 22 out of the 25 seats. Due to the fact that so little is known about the long-term impacts of geothermal power plants, this ordering is a matter of concern. Before further construction takes place, it is necessary to wait until more experience is gained from the already operating geothermal power plants. Many of the problems connected to these plants are still unsolved, for instance the dangerous material in the plants’ run-of water as well as their polluting emissions. This has to be taken into consideration, especially near the capital area of Reykjavík where sulphur pollution is already very high5.

It also has to be taken into account that geothermal energy production is not sustainable, as an geothermal area’s heat supply eventually dries up. Their usage allows for 50 years of production, which of course is a very limited amount of time. If the plan is to use such energy for industrial development it has to be kept in mind that 50 years pass very quickly, meaning that the jobs at stake are no long-term jobs. At the same time, such a short-term utilization encroaches on future generations’ right to utilize the geothermal energy sources, not to mention their right to utilize these areas by protecting them for outdoor activities and creation of knowledge, as Iceland’s geothermal areas are unique on a global scale. For the last weeks, we have witnessed how the already exploited geothermal areas, or those where test-drilling has taken place, have not at all been utilized in a way that goes together with tourism and outdoor activities, as the areas’ appearance and environment have been damaged on a large scale6.

Economical Arguments

When it comes to economical arguments, people often tend to call for short-term employment solutions, stating that it is important to construct as many possible power plants in the shortest time in order to create as many jobs as possible. The fact, however, is that a construction-driven economy will always lead to instability, and such instability is indeed the Icelandic economy’s largest bale. Above all, Iceland’s economy needs stability and a future vision that sees further than 10 years into the future. For a stable future economy to be built, it has to happen in a sustainable way, whereas continuous aggressive exploitation of the country’s natural resources will simply lead to an era of regular economic collapses. By putting such strong emphasis on the aggressive exploitation of hydro and geothermal resources, with the appendant construction bubbles, a situation of unemployment will be sustained, broken up by occasional and differently short-lived boom periods in between. Read More

Dec 09 2011

Time Has Told: The Kárahnjúkar Dams Disastrous Economical and Environmental Impacts

The profitability of Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national energy company, is way too low. And worst off is the Kárahnjúkar hydro power plant, Europe’s largest dam, the company’s biggest and most expensive construction. Landsvirkjun’s director Hörður Arnarson revealed this during the company’s recent autumn meeting, and blamed the low price of energy sold to large-scale energy consumers, such as Alcoa’s aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður, as one of the biggest factors reducing profit.

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.

At the same time, new research shows that the environmental impacts of the Kárahnjúkar dams are exactly as vast and serious as environmentalists and scientists feared.

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

Nov 09 2011
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Aluminium Smelters Use Tremendous Amounts Of Electricity, Return Little

From The Reykjavík Grapevine

The smallest aluminium smelter in Iceland uses 50% more electricity than all of Iceland’s households and businesses combined, while contributing very little to the country’s GDP. Heavy industry has often been touted by Icelandic conservatives as a cash cow: foreign companies can provide the country with jobs, while utilising Iceland’s green energy to produce aluminium in a cleaner fashion.

While the myth of the “green smelter” has been definitively put to rest, aluminium is still billed by some as being good for the economy. However, Vilhjálmur Þorsteinsson – the chair of a study group assembled by the Ministry of Industry that studies Iceland’s energy use – has come to some damning conclusions about smelters in Iceland.

Iceland’s three aluminium smelters – Alcoa in Reyðarfjörður, Norðurál in Grundartangi, and Rio Tinto Alcan in Straumsvík – consume approximately 13 terawatt hours of electricity. The entire capacity of Iceland’s electrical output is 17 terawatt hours. Furthermore, Straumsvík – the smallest smelter in the country – uses 3.6 terawatt hours. The combined total energy consumption of every home and business in Iceland (apart from the smelters) equals only 2.3 terawatt hours.

At the same time, even the best estimates of what smelters contribute to the economy only put them in the neighbourhood of contributing to 5% of the GDP. Tourism accounts for about the same percentage of the GDP while using far less of the power grid. Meanwhile, Iceland’s service sector accounts for 69.9% of its GDP, and fishing accounts for 12%.

Oct 18 2011

No Smelter in Húsavík! – Energy Crisis Force Alcoa to Withdraw

After a six years process Alcoa in Iceland has withdrawn its plans to build a 250 thousand ton aluminium smelter in Bakki, near Húsavík in the North of Iceland. It is now clear, according to the company, that the energy needed to run the proposed smelter will not be provided and, even if it could be provided, the company finds the price too high. Tómas Már Sigurðsson, the director of Alcoa in Iceland, announced this yesterday on a meeting in Húsavík, marking a milestone in the struggle against the aluminium industry’s further development in Iceland.

As from 2005 Alcoa, along with national energy company Landsvirkjun, Húsavík’s authorities and – to begin with – the Icelandic authorities, has been working on the project, which would have required at least 400 MW of energy, produced by harnessing geothermal areas and glacial rivers in the North. In 2008 a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Landsvirkjun and Alcoa expired, and a year later the same happened concerning a MOU between the aluminium producer and the Icelandic government, the latter not willing to renew it.

Since then Landsvirkjun has signed a few other MOUs, regarding geothermal energy commerce, with possible buyers such as data centres and silicon factories, in some ways meeting with a popular demand for less destructive and more “green” use of the geothermal energy. Regardless of what one finds about the alleged “greenness” of such enterprises this development has inevitably raised the question if Landsvirkjun would be able to feed both Alcoa’s planned smelter and at the same time these smaller, less energy intensive factories. Read More

Jul 16 2011
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Reykjavík Energy in Deep Water: The Untold Story of Geothermal Energy in Iceland

By Anna Andersen, photos by Alísa Kalyanova. Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.

Overrun by Viking ambition, Reykjavík Energy built headquarters fit for Darth Vader, expanded ambitiously, dabbled in tiger prawn farming and flax seed production, went into the fibre optics business, invested in a new geothermal plant, speculated in places like Djibouti, and finally managed to run itself so completely into the ground that foreign investors will no longer offer the company loans.

In hopes of rescuing its multi-utility service company from the depths of abyss, the city of Reykjavík stepped in this March with a 12 billion ISK (105 million USD) loan, which is nearly its entire reserve fund set aside for the company, but still only a fraction of the company’s massive foreign debt of 200 billion ISK (1.7 billion USD).

With thousands of captive lifetime subscribers and a means of producing energy at very little cost, the company had all the makings of a cash cow. So what happened to Reykjavík Energy, an entity that less than a decade ago was a perfectly viable, municipally owned company providing the city with basic utilities: cold water, hot water and electricity? Read More

Jun 04 2011

Fundamental Questions About Modern Civilization Itself – Arundhati Roy on “Broken Republic”

In the video above, Indian author Arundhati Roy talks about her recently published book, Broken Republic: Three Essays, and how the Indian government is, along with international mining corporations, violating the indigenous of India, destroying their lands and displacing them, leading to a constantly increasing gap between the rich and the poor. One of the book’s essays, titled “Mr Chidambaram’s War”, focuses on the Dongria Kondh tribe in Odisha, who have fought against Vedanta’s and ALCAN’s bauxite mining for aluminium production over the last decades.

The following text explains Broken Republic’s content briefly:

War has spread from the borders of India to the forests in the very heart of the country. Combining brilliant analysis and reportage by one of India’s iconic writers, Broken Republic examines the nature of progress and development in the emerging global superpower, and asks fundamental questions about modern civilization itself.

May 11 2011

Landsvirkjun Wants Icelanders to Settle Upon 14 New Power Plants

Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national energy company, plans to build fourteen power plants in the next 15 years; ten hydro dams and four geothermal plants, costing between 4,5 and 5 billion US dollars. If the plans go ahead Landsvirkjun will increase its electricity production by eleven terawatt hours (TWh), resulting in annual production of 40 TWh. “A new Kárahnjúkar dam is on the cards,” said Katrín Júlíusdóttir, minster of industry, when discussing  energy plans in parliament recently.

Landsvirkjun’s new plan was presented at the company’s annual general meeting, which took place on April 15th. According to the company’s director, Hörður Árnason, the planned power plants are to be built in several rivers, including Þjórsá, Tungnaá and Hólmsá, as well as geothermal areas in the north of Iceland. The construction of Búðarháls Dam in Tungnaá has already started and Landsvirkjun plans to start energy production there in 2013, whereas all the other options are still being looked at in the making of a framework programme concerning the use and protection of Iceland natural resources. Read More

Apr 14 2011

Alcoa in Greenland: Empty Promises?

By Miriam Rose

After many years of preparations the Greenlandic government say the final decision on Alcoa’s proposed smelter will be taken at the spring 2012 of the parliament. It is more likely, as the global history of the industry and the evidence in Greenland tells us, that the decision has in fact already been made undemocratically behind closed doors, despite the decreasing support of the Greenlandic people. In fact Alcoa and the Greenland government are so keen on passing the project that they have just hired an eighth employee at their national company Greenland Development- formed to enable the industry to go ahead. Juaaka Lyberth’s explicit remit is to influence public opinion on the smelter through the media. Greenland Development paints a rosy picture of an aluminium future for Greenland, but will their promises of prosperity come true? A comparison to Alcoa’s Fjardaal project in East Iceland suggests that many will not. Read More