Aug 22 2008

Bakki Impact Assessment Should Include Dams

Jaap Krater, Morgunbladid – Thórunn Sveinbjarnardóttir’s has said the environmental impact of Alcoa’s planned Bakki smelter and the associated energy production needs to be considered jointly (1). This poses the question whether or not new dams will be needed for heavy industry in the north. Looking at what can be realistically realised from geothermal plants, it becomes clear that a number of hydro projects will inevitably be necessary to power the Bakki smelter, and they should be taken into the assessment. In this article Jaap Krater analyses the energy calculations for the smelter and potential power plants.

Smelter size
Originally the Bakki smelter was said to be planned for 250,000 metric tons per year. However, Alcoa has said before it deems smelters under 360,000 tons ‘unsustainable’ (2). Now the American corporation has said it would like at least a 346,000 tons smelter (3) near Husavík. Alcoa has been steering towards a smelter of this size from the start. Their initial study for the area aimed at a smelter of this size (4), although the environmental impact assessment and energy generating plans under discussion now would be for a smaller smelter. For a smelter above 250,000 tons, the whole energy grid of the north would need to be rebuilt (5). In the end, expansion to 500,000 tons would be possible. “The bigger the better,” says Bernt Reitan, Alcoa’s Vice-President (6).

Energy requirements
A 250,000 ton smelter would require 400 MW of electricity. The energy would be coming from the geothermal fields in North Iceland. If the optimistic estimate of 370 MW for Krafla 2 (drilling into the Viti volcano), Þeistareykir and Bjarnarflag (7,8) would be realised, which is uncertain, there would still be a deficiency, so 30 MW would be taken from the yet unspoiled and unexplored Gjástykki area, at a huge environmental cost (9). For a medium sized smelter the deficiency would rise to at least 150 MW and for a large smelter it would be at least 400 MW.

Possible dams
Thus, if the Bakki project is pushed through, it is almost inevitable that this will lead to construction of more large dams. A company named Hrafnabjargavirkjun Hf is already set up to prepare construction of a new 90 MW plant with three dams in Skjalfandafljot. Fljotshnjuksvirkjun (two dams) in the same river would produce another 58 MW. The corporation is owned for 60% by Orkuveita Reykjavikur. Other shareholders include Norðurorka and Orkuveita Húsavíkur (10). The proposed Skatastaðavirkjun power plant dams on Jökulsá Eystri, Jökulsá-Vestri, Fossá , Giljá, Lambá and Hölkná and on Lake Orravatn and Reyðarvatn (north of Hofsjokull), may produce 184 MW. Villinganesvirkjun, which would dam both Jökulsá-Vestri and Jökulsá-Eystri in the Skagafjörður region, could produce another 33 MW.
A 72 km2 reservoir in Jökulsá á Fjöllum in the Eastern Highlands (Arnardalsvirkjun) could produce 570 MW.
So it would seem that new dams would need to be built in either Skjalfandafljot, Jökulsá Eystri and Jökulsá-Vestri, or in Jökulsá á Fjöllum, just to build a medium sized smelter at Bakki. Further options are more dams at Laxá í Aðaldal or Eyabakka (11).

Risks from geothermal plants
An added factor why an aluminium smelter in the north would need to rely on hydro rather than geothermal is the risks associated with power plants in highly active geological areas. Geological assessment has indicated definitite risks of geothermal boreholes being destroyed by geologic activity. In 1975, at Bjarnarflag, one of the areas that is supposed to power the Bakki smelter, four out of six boreholes were destroyed due to volcanic activity (12). For aluminium smelting, a prolonged electricity cut-off can destroy part of a smelter, which depends on continuous electric supply. A base level of supply from a second source is desirable. On top of that, geothermal energy production is more expensive than hydro.

For Alcoa, it would be neither desirable nor feasible to construct an aluminium smelter near Husavík that would be solely dependent on geothermal areas. A number of dams would need to be constructed. The environmental impact would be high.
At the same time, the damage from drilling into the Viti volcano and at Gjástykki will be considerable and at Þeistareykir a large pollution lagoon has already been formed by test drilling (13), for which no impact assessment was thought necessary.
It is thus not surprising that the pro-aluminium lobby is resisting a joint impact assessment. It would be much more convenient to have smaller half-hearted assessments when the smelter is already half built.
If the environmental impact of the Bakki smelter is to be considered seriously, then the impact of a medium to large smelter and potential new dams need to be taken into account as well as the damage from drilling around Lake Myvatn.

Jaap Krater is a spokesperson of Saving Iceland.

  • 1 Iceland Review (2008). North Iceland Smelter Project up for Joint Assessment. [Accessed August 4th, 2008]
  • 2 Wilson, A. (2006). Alcoa clears the air. Interview with Bernt Reitan and Wade Hughes. Trinidad Guardian, Dec 7th 2006. [Accessed August 4th, 2008]
  • 3 Alcoa (2008). Alcoa presents revised draft EIA proposal for an aluminum smelter at Bakki by Husavik. [Accessed August 4th, 2008]
  • 4 HRV/Honnun (2005). Primary aluminium plant located near Husavik. Site study. [Accessed August 4th, 2008]
  • 5 Ibidem 4.
  • 6 Saving Iceland (2008). Húsavík contract signed behind closed doors. [Accessed August 4th, 2008]
  • 7 Ministry of Industry, Iceland (2002). Master Plan for Hydro and
  • Geothermal Energy Resources in Iceland. [Accessed August 4th, 2008]
  • 8 Pallson, B. (2007). Geothermal Power in Iceland. Nordnet.
  • 9 Iceland Review (2008). Power Company Accused of Prioritizing South Iceland. [Accessed August 5th, 2008]
  • 10 Alþingi (2008). 135. löggjafarþingi 2007–2008. Þskj. 688 — 432. mál. [Accessed August 4th, 2008]
  • 11 Ibidem 7.
  • 12 Sæmundsson, K. (2006). Assessing Volcanic risk in north Iceland. ISOR – Icelandic Geosurvey. [Accessed August 4th, 2008]
  • 13 Saving Iceland (2008). Energy companies destroying Þeistareykir. [Accessed August 5th, 2008]

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