Green power or green countryside? Iceland's energetic debate

Plans to expand Iceland's energy production are running into opposition from those who say the new power sources, though renewable, would mar the country's beauty.

Jim Heintz/AP
The waterfalls of Dynjandi, Iceland, are a highlight of the isolated Westfjords and a popular sightseeing destination.

Sprengisandur is an ancient, unpaved road veering across the rugged, volcano-strewn central highlands of Iceland. Twelve centuries ago, the 125 mile-long windswept pass, whose name derives from sprengya, the Icelandic verb for riding a horse to its death, was one of the routes by which residents made the long trek to Althing, the midsummer parliament.

Today, the scenic road, now traversed by tourist caravans, is at the nexus of two disparate agendas which have emerged on the fast-changing island, as it continues to recover from the great Icelandic crash of 2008.

On one side, the center-right government and Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, appear anxious to strengthen Iceland’s already overloaded energy grid to both expand the industrial sector and make the country an energy exporter.

On the other, a surging environmentalist movement led by Björk, the “queen of Icelandic music,” wants to halt this trend, which has already seen the construction of four smelting factories, and turn the highlands, one of Europe’s largest remaining wilderness areas, into a national park.

Green land vs green energy

“Iceland currently has the largest untouched area of nature in Europe,” said Björk at a packed press conference in Reykjavik last month. “The government has plans to build over 50 dams and power plants,” the musician said, referring to the number of possible sites considered under the multi-phase energy master plan drawn up by Landsvirkjun and approved by Parliament.

In addition to the proposed power line at Sprengisandur, green-minded Icelanders were also alarmed by a British-Icelandic joint task force, announced in October, to explore building an undersea cable linking the two countries' power grids.

The so-called Icelink, which theoretically would ultimately supply 10 percent of Britain’s electricity needs, was enthusiastically received in energy-parched Britain. However preservationists in Iceland see both the overhead power voltage line at Sprengisandur and the envisioned undersea link to Scotland as harbingers of the same environmental doom.

“The Sprengisandur overhead power line is being proposed independent of the sea cable to Scotland,” concedes Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, managing director of the Icelandic Environment Association, a nongovernmental organization. “However if the sea cable would be constructed, the Sprengisandur power line would need to be strengthened.”

That is why, Mr. Gudbrandsson says, he and his allies have decided to draw the line at Sprengisandur.

A considerable number of Icelanders appear to agree. According to a new Gallup poll, 60 percent of respondents support the idea of a highlands park, an increase from 2011, with only 12.5 percent opposed. Meanwhile, more than 40,000 Icelanders, close to 15 percent of the population, have affixed their signatures to an IEA-sponsored petition to create the park.

The one thing that preservationists don’t want to see is more heavy metal factories like the giant Alcoa smelter at Kárahnjúkar, in the east of the country, for which several large rivers were diverted and a large reservoir covering a 20-square-mile area was created.

An overreaction?

For its part, the government contends that preservationists’ concerns are, at the least, premature.

“First, nothing has been decided by the government as [Björk] claimed," Elin Arnadottir, the minister of Industry and Commerce, told the Monitor. “Second, the government has no plans to build 50 dams as was stated.”

Ms. Arnodottir points out that the proposed power line must first undergo an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before it proceeds any further, and that the government is not trying to push the project “down the throat of the country,” as Andri Magnason, the noted Icelandic writer, charged.

As far as the so-called Icelink is concerned, the minister struck a cautious note, noting that “certain aspects of this matter [have to be analyzed] before a decision [can] be made on whether to embark upon such a project or not.”

But some believe that the government is perhaps not so secretly pushing its own agenda.

“We can’t afford to wait and see. That’s what we did at Kárahnjúkar,” says Mr. Magnason, who took leave from his imaginative work to write "Dreamland: Self-Help for Frightened Nation," in which he depicts the damage to the environment that results from damming rivers to power aluminum smelters like the one at Kárahnjúkar. “Look what happened – it’s a mess.”

“I think that everyone understands and wants to encourage the use of renewable resources,” says Gudbrandsson, who points to the fact that heavy industry now absorbs 77 percent of Iceland’s primary energy. “In the Icelandic context, that has already been done to a great extent, not only for Icelanders, but to fuel multinational companies.”

“This means that a lot of beauty has been taken away from Iceland,” he says. “We simply believe that we can’t lose anymore and that this is a good time to stop.”

A matter of scale

Gylfi Magnusson, an economist at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, points out that what's bad for Iceland environmentally may still be good on the global scale.

"Iceland’s energy sources do not involve any burning of fossil fuel," he notes. "Expanding their use and hopefully reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels to some, albeit very small, degree instead is thus a positive step from the viewpoint of fighting global warming."

And to be sure, not all Icelanders agree with the Björk-IEA agenda. “There is a romanticized view that the interior is like the heart of the country and the core of our identity,” says Egill Helgason, a prominent journalist and former talk show host. “This is actually quite a recent phenomenon. Previously most Icelanders would have said that language and literature were our cultural mainstays.”

In response, environmentalists say, the case against expansion of Iceland’s energy industry is not entirely romantic.

Further damming or digging to create more geothermal or hydroelectric plants, they say, will inevitably hurt Iceland’s booming tourist industry – the country's largest – which has made the island’s “unspoiled beauty” its principal selling point. More than 1 million tourists visited Iceland in 2014, up 33 percent from the 2013, drawn in part by images of the country’s “pure” environment.

Either way, says Professor Magnusson, "it is quite important for Icelandic society to reach a reasonable compromise on how far to go in expanding the energy sector so that the environment is spared to a large extent."

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