Aug 19 2007
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The Myth of an Aluminium Plant at Húsavík


Is the Energy on the Doorstep?

By Dr. Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttur

Many things have been said and written about plans for ALCOA´s aluminium plant at Bakki near Húsavík. One after another, important men have praised the idea and by now the only political parties not supporting it are the Iceland Movement and the Left Green party.
The propaganda of the supporters follows these lines: “utilise the national energy potential,” “the people of Húsavík have a right to an aluminium plant,” “the plant will only use energy drawn from the land nearby Húsavík, “damming of Skjálfandafljót and Jökulsá á Fjöllum is nothing but environmental propaganda”, “Geothermal energy has a low environmental impact”, “preparation work has been exceptionally well done.”
But how much truth do those slogans contain? Is there something more that needs to be looked into? Are the people of Húsavík, politicians included pushing the issues forward without really having looked at all the facts?

Procuring energy
When producing 250 thousand tons of aluminium per year, 550MW of capactity is needed producing around 3700 GWhours per year. When signing the agreement to look into a aluminium plant by Húsavík the president of ALCOA announced his plans for right away building a 300 thousand ton aluminium plant (which demands 660MW), but in the end the community should be prepared for demands for a 500 thousand ton plant. According to Alcoa´s site report the company plans to get the energy from:

1) Þeistareykir (80 MW),
2) Krafla I (100 MW),
3) Krafla II (120 MW),
4) Bjarnarflag (80MW),
5) Gjástykki (80 MW)
6) Hrafnabjörg (90 MW).

raflinur a nordurlandi

This means five new energy plants in Suður-Þingeyjarsýsla plus almost doubling of Krafla I. Little research has gone into some of those areas, how much energy they could give is uncertain. The questions that arise are for example:

1. ALCOA includes in their plans all the energy now produced in Krafla, around 60 MW, that energy has already been sold, so somewhere there must be more energy plants or dams needed to fulfill energy needs for the national grid.

2. Where will the energy come from when the aluminium plant will be doubled?

3. Why are supporters of the aluminium plant so certain that Skjálfandafljót with Hrafnabjargafoss and Aldeyjarfoss will not be sacrificed for the plant, even though ALCOA includes Hrafnabjargavirkjun in their site report?

4. Geothermal energy plants have an estimated 30 year lifespan. What happens than? Is the aluminium plant supposed to just pack up and leave?

Energy at the doorstep
For it’s first phase the aluminium plant will have to receive energy though power lines stretching more than 114 km from Mývatnssveit and 64 km extra from Hrafnabjörg. To reach the 300 thousand ton production limit it might be necessary to get energy from Villinganes- and Skatastaðadams, but power lines from them would stretch from Skagafjörður across Eyjafjarðar- and Suður-Þingeyjarcounty all the way to Húsavík – that is if the local people are not willing to sacrifice more of Skjálfandafljót and if Jökulsá á Fjöllum will not be sacrificed. Where the energy for a 500 thousand ton aluminium plant is supposed to come from is not known at all, but must be before the decision to build a aluminium plant is taken.

Is the energy really so green and great?

Water pollution from geothermal energy plants
Among the many things that have been written about pollution from aluminium plants is the cancer-causing PAH chemicals who are carried into nature, plus fluoride, sulphur and CO2 which are pumped into the air. Not so much has come forth about the impact from the energy plants themselves. Apart from the obvious impact on land, as the people in the south of Iceland have experienced with the work at Hellisheiði, the biggest polluters from geothermal plants are noise, exhaust fumes and run-off water. In geothermal run-off water the biggest polluters are hydrogen sulphite, arsenic, boron, mercury and other metals like led, cadmium, iron, zink and manganese but lithium, ammoniac and aluminium are sometimes also present in harmful amounts. From this list it is arsenic which is the biggest worry in run-off water by lake Mývatn since it is poisonous and dangerous to life. It is vital to look into whether a fivefold increase of energy production in the Mývatn county will damage the biosphere in and around the lake, but the environmental impact of all the plans has not been estimated as a whole.

Production of greenhouse and other gases
According to the estimate reports for Krafla and Bjarnarflag it is expected that 1300 tons of CO2 and 108 tons of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) will be let into the atmosphere for each MW produced by the plants. On a limited area and close to the populated area of Reykjahlíð, 390 thousand tons of CO2 and more than 32 thousand tons of H2S per year will be released into the atmosphere. Hydrogen sulphite is a poisonous gas, it´s strength in the atmosphere at workplaces in Iceland may not be above 10 ppm on a 8 hour workday. On top of this comes the production from from Þeistareykjar and Gjástykki. Given the same premises and based on Alcoa´s site report which includes a 90 MW hydropower dam in Skjálfandafljót, the probable amount of CO2 exhaustion will be 600 thousand tons a year, which is about the same amount as all transport in Iceland produces. For comparison, the aluminium plant itself will exhaust about 375 thousand tons a year. If energy will be provided only with geothermal energy the CO2 exhaust will be close to fifty percent more in providing energy for the plant than the plant itself will exhaust. In my opinion it is time that we Icelanders face the fact that maybe our green energy isn´t so green after all.

The effect on Mývatn county
The face of the province, which is supposed to be protected under nature preservation laws, will change considerably to the northeast when all work on site has been carried out. Some of the most popular hiking paths will be significantly disrupted. Blows of steam will take over the horizon with pipelines and concrete dominating the area. Since about 32 thousand tons of hydrogen sulphite will enter the atmosphere around the most populated area each year, I feel that the residents of the Mývatn county deserve that a thorough investigation into the possibility of the amount of the substance exceeding health limits. This must be investigated before it is “too late” to go back. It is predictable that the fight to preserve the nature of Mývatnssveit, which has been going on for nearly 40 years, will harden again. The comparison to the struggle to preserve Þjórsárver is striking.

I hope that most people take a stand based on real facts, whether they see those ideas about aluminium plants as a well thought out environmentally friendly action which will please and benefit all who live in this part of the land. To me the words and propaganda of supporters of the aluminium plans raise many questions. When does propaganda become truth and when does imagery become reality?


One Response to “The Myth of an Aluminium Plant at Húsavík”

  1. Sigurður Magnússon says:

    See also: A letter to ALCOA from Dr. Ragnhildur Sigurdardóttir and Gudmundur Páll Ólafsson