Energy in Iceland
Thanks entirely to water, Iceland has a remarkable level of energy security – and through largely renewable means.
Icelanders use their fast flowing rivers to generate electricity for homes and industry and the country’s ample supply of geothermal hot water is also used to a lesser extent to generate electricity. The main use for geothermal energy is, however, the provision of hot water for heating and bathing.
Most houses in the country get their hot water pumped straight from pipes in the street in the same way as cold water. They have no boilers and there is no main gas supply in the country at all. For that reason almost everybody has electric cookers, but no need to worry about their supposed inefficiency, because electricity is so cheap.
Hot water is so abundant in Iceland that it is used in under-street heating systems in a lot of towns to keep the pavements free of ice and snow. This is considered a ‘nice little thoughtful gesture’ in Iceland, while providing such a service in other countries would probably lead to bankruptcy! This deliberately wasteful use of hot water is not enough to deal with the surplus and it is also used to heat the Nauthólsvík geothermal beach to make the frigid sea warm enough to swim in. Let us not also forget the fact that Iceland has a lot of swimming pools. A LOT of swimming pools, mostly all heated with natural volcanic hotness.
It is a bit of a case of ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to geothermal hot water, in so far as the heat and the water are there anyway and if we don’t use it then it will end up in the sea eventually. That is not to say that geothermal stations are not environmentally damaging (did you know that geothermal emits greenhouse gases, for example?) but there is a sliding environmental scale of ‘badness’.
When it comes to hydropower, the scale of environmental damage is easily visible: you need to build dams. They are really bad for the rivers, what lives in the rivers, and for the unspoiled natural views.
Icelanders have decided over the years that generating reliable hydro- electricity from their rivers is worth the sacrifice – and indeed it has left most of the country’s abundant rivers and most of its beautiful landscapes unspoiled and beautiful.
That all changed when the idea of using Icelandic energy to boost export revenues came up. Obviously we can’t export electricity in the way that places like France and Norway can; so energy intensive heavy industry was invited to use the power inside Iceland instead. The country is now Europe’s second biggest producer of aluminum, and 12th in the world – on a list dominated by countries rich in cheap coal and/or oil.
Developments came to a head in the 2000s with the construction of the monumentally huge Kárahnjúkar Dam in East Iceland; built for the sole purpose of powering a new aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður. The change in river flows caused by the dam has since been blamed for killing most of the ecosystem in one of Iceland’s favorite lakes, Lagarfljót.
Seven years after its completion, plans for further new dam/smelter combos have not been discussed seriously, despite strong interest from business. The backlash would be too strong… for now.
The story got even more interesting when it came to light that despite earlier assumptions, it is now technologically and financially viable to sell electricity through under-sea cables directly to the Faroe Islands and onward to the UK and mainland Europe. Theoretically we could dam every single one of our rivers and get very rich indeed…and at the same time we’d be helping Europe cut its carbon emissions!
Luckily though, Icelanders generally love their country and do not want to sacrifice its landscape any more. And you, dear guest, are actually helping matters; because keeping Iceland beautiful for the tourism industry is a very persuasive argument, even against the few greedy so-and-sos who says “concrete it over!” So thank you.
Finally we come to oil. Iceland does not yet produce any of the stuff and has to import nearly all its fuel for sea and land transportation. Two things are changing on that front though: firstly the likely commencement of oil extraction in the offshore Dragon Area in the coming few years, and secondly the creation of greener transportation fuels within Iceland. Thanks to our abundant electric and seawater, Iceland had the world’s first public hydrogen filling station and has more recently begun making liquid fuel from geothermal exhaust gases. And this is in addition to the more orthodox production of methane and biodiesel going on.
Through much of the 20th Century Iceland frankly looked a bit feeble, warming itself huddled around smelly hot water at the same time as importing all its other energy in the form of coal and oil. Now though Iceland is seen by some as the new Saudi Arabia. We have the green energy the world wants and the technology to exploit it; and it could make Icelanders very rich.
On the other hand, Icelanders are already extremely rich (even after the financial crisis) on any international scale you’d care to mention – and the people here care deeply about their country. That is why we cautiously draw the conclusion that Iceland will remain the pristine and beautiful place it is today.
In fact, it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that will be the case!