Feb 09 2009

Iceland’s Ecological Crisis: Large Scale Renewable Energy and Wilderness Destruction

From New Renaissance Magazine

By Miriam Rose

The economic issues currently causing mass demonstrations in Iceland have a less publicised ecological cousin, and one which the IMF has recently identified as part of the economic collapse. In 1995 the Ministry of Industry and Landsvirkjun, the national power company, began to advertise Iceland’s huge hydropower and geothermal energy potential. In a brochure titled “Lowest energy prices!!” they offered the cheapest, most hard working and healthiest labour force in the world, the cleanest air and purest water – as well as the cheapest energy and “a minimum of environmental red tape” to some of the world’s most well known polluting industries and corporations (such as Rio Tinto and Alcoa). This campaigning has led to the development of an ‘Energy Master Plan’ aimed at damming almost all of the major glacial rivers in Iceland, and exploiting all of the geothermal energy, for the power intensive aluminium industry. The loans taken by the Icelandic state to build large scale energy projects, and the minimal payback they have received from the industry, has been a considerable contributing factor to the economic crisis, while at the same time creating a European ecological crisis that is little heard of.

The Largest Wilderness in Europe
I first visited Iceland in 2006 and spent a week with activists from the environmental campaign Saving Iceland, a network of individuals from around Europe and Iceland who decry the fragmentation of Europe’s largest wilderness in favour of heavy industry. From these informed and passionate folk I learned of the 690 MW Kárahnjúkar dam complex being built in the untouched Eastern Central Highlands to power one Alcoa aluminium smelter in a small fishing village called Reydarfjörður. The dams formed the largest hydro-power complex in Europe, and were set to drown 57 km2 of beautiful and virtually unstudied wilderness, the most fertile area in the surrounding highlands. Ultimately it would affect 3% of Iceland’s landmass with soil erosion and river silt deprivation. They also explained how materials in the glacial silt transported to the oceans bonds with atmospheric CO2, sinking carbon. The damming of Iceland’s glacial rivers not only decreases food supply for fish stocks in the North Atlantic, but also negatively impacts oceanic carbon absorption, a significant climatic effect. After taking part in demonstrations at the construction site of the Alcoa smelter (being built by famous Iraq war profiteers Bechtel), I went to see the area for myself.

Travelling alone on foot in this vast and threatening landscape was one of the most incredible and spiritual experiences of my life. I walked along the deep canyon of the crashing glacial river set to be dammed, as ravens soared above me and a sound like falling rocks echoed from distant mountains. I slept in grassy valleys and bathed in a warm waterfall which ran from a nearby hot spring as reindeer galloped in the distance. The midnight sun showed me the way to Snæfell mountain, from the top of which I could see from the Vatnajokull ice cap all the way to the dam construction site; across wetlands, black sand deserts and shadowy mountains. By the next year the dam’s reservoir would stretch across this whole area. I felt small and vulnerable and had a sense of the immense power of nature, and the even greater power of mankind to choose whether to preserve or to irreversibly destroy it.

Since then critiques of the completed Kárahnjúkar project have made it increasingly unpopular with the Icelandic public, who have become sceptical about the secretive nature of energy deals and the damage to nature. As a result, Landsvírkjun and the heavy industry lobby are now focussing on geothermal power which has a more benign reputation. Ultimately, it is proposed that all of the economically feasible hot spring areas in Iceland will be exploited for industrial use, including a number of sites located in Iceland’s central highlands, the beautiful heart of Iceland’s undisturbed wilderness. Landsvirkjun, without any irony, has termed Iceland ‘the Kuwait of the North’.

The following section challenges some of the myths about ‘green’ geothermal energy.

Geothermal energy is created when boreholes are drilled into hot subsurface rock areas or aquifers, and turbines are powered by the emitted steam. They only have a sustainable production level if the surface discharge of heat is balanced by heat and fluid recharge within the reservoir (as occurs at undisturbed hot springs), but this is generally not sufficient for exploiting economically. The Geyser hot springs at Calistoga, USA experienced a 150% decrease in production over ten years, due to rapid exploitation to meet economic requirements, and there have been many similar cases. Geothermal boreholes in Iceland are usually modelled for only 30 years of productioni.

The concentration of carbon dioxide present in geothermal steam is a reflection of the chemical make up of the underground reservoir and is distinct to each area. The 400 MW of boreholes planned for another Alcoa smelter in the north of Iceland will release 1300 tonnes CO2 per MWii. An average gas powered plant would produce only slightly more, 1595 tonne per MWiii. The total of 520,000 tonnes CO2 for these fields alone is almost as much as what is produced by all of road transport in Icelandiv.

Minimal environmental impact
Geothermal power accounts for 79% of Iceland’s H2S and SO2 emissionsv. In 2008, sulphur pollution from the Hellisheiði power station, 30 km away, was reported to be turning lamposts and jewelry in Reykjavík black, as a record number of objections was filed to two more large geothermal plants in the same area, which would have produced more sulphur and carbon emissions than the planned smelter they were supposed to power, and plans were put on hold.
Geothermal areas such as Hellisheiði are globally rare, very beautiful and scientifically interesting. Icelandic geothermal areas are characterised by colourful striking landscapes, hot springs, lavas and glaciers, and are biologically and geologically endemic to the country. Irreversible disturbance to these wild areas for power plants includes roads, powerlines, heavy lorries and loud drilling equipment.

Wishful green thinking?
In the desperate search for plausible alternatives to our fossil fuel economy, a number of well known British greens have been advocating a ‘European Grid’ energy future, in which Icelandic large scale hydro and geothermal power, and Saharan solar, are transferred by underwater cable to Britain and Europevi. It is quite understandable that such schemes look appealing, but it is also essential to have a realistic analysis of the impacts caused by these so-called sustainable technologies before we accept them as a panacea to our fossil fuel sickness.

The technological or pragmatic environmentalism in favour of super grids comes down to a proposal to sacrifice unique ecological areas for the greater good of living a resource-intensive life style ‘sustainably’. In contrast, for anyone who identifies with a natural area, it is easy to understand why it has a value of its own. This value can be seen as far greater than that of any of our possessions; it is in a sense, invaluable.

What can perhaps be concluded from this Icelandic green energy case study is that application of a technology that has been thought of as renewable, climate-friendly and low-impact, on the large scale that is associated with fossil fuels, makes it a lot like the technology it was supposed to replace. It has certainly been argued that technological systems tend to reproduce themselves independent of the specific technologiesvii viii. Simply applying a different technology to address issues that are not entirely technological, is not addressing the problem of our consumptive lifestyles. But it can irrevocably end the existence of a place that is not like any other.


i E.g. VGK (2005), Environmental Impact Assesment for Helisheidarvirkjun [online]. URL http://www.vgk.is/hs/Skjol/UES/SH_matsskyrsla.pdf [Accessed August 15, 2007].
ii Sigurðardóttir, R. Unpublished. Energy good and green. In: Bæ bæ Ísland (bye bye Iceland), to be published by the University of Akureyri and Akureyri Art Museum.
The data in this study is arrived at by calculation of the figures in site surveys for the Krafla, Bjarnarflag and Þeistareykir geothermal plants.
Sigurðardóttir has experienced threats and harassment by Landsvirkjun, the national power company, since 2000. In that year, she concluded the formal environmental impact assessment for a proposed large dam, Þjórsárver, a Ramsar treaty area, by stating there were significant, irreversible environmental impacts. The national power company did not pay her and refused to publish the report. Since then Sigurðardóttir has been refused all Icelandic government commissions. Since then, practically all EIAs for geothermal and hydro plants and smelters have been commissioned to the companies HRV and VGK, construction engineers rather than ecological consultancies and “the leading project management and consulting engineering companies within the primary aluminum production sector” (HRV. 2008. Primary aluminium production [online]. URL http://www.hrv.is/hrv/Info/PrimaryAluminumProduction/ [Accessed 13-12-2008]).
iii US Govt. Energy Information Administration. 2008. Voluntary reporting of greenhouse gases program. [online]. URL http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/coefficients.html [Accessed 13-12-2008].
iv Ministry of the Environment, Iceland (2006). Iceland’s Fourth National Communication on Climate Change. http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/natc/islnc4.pdf [Accessed August 15, 2007].
v Statistics Iceland. 2007. Emission of sulphur dioxides (SO2) by source 1990-2006 [online]. URL http://www.statice.is/Statistics/Geography-and-environment/Gas-emission [Accessed 12/12/2008]
vi E.g. Monbiot, G. (2008). Build a Europe-wide ‘super grid’ [online]. URL http://e-day.org.uk/solutions/charities/14536/george-monbiot–build-a-europewide-super-grid.thtml [Accessed 13-12-2008].
vii E.g. Mander, J. 1992. In the absence of the sacred. Sierra Club, San Francisco, CA.
viii Krater, J. 2007. Duurzame technologie, een contradictie? Buiten de Orde, zomer 2007.