January 01, 2017

The Back Page: Green Energy from Iceland: A Modern Saga

Jonathan Scoll

Around 1200 A.D., the Icelandic Saga poet and Viking chieftain Snorri Sturluson piped a hot spring to an outdoor pool near his house. It is the first recorded use of an energy-rich geologic anomaly Snorri could not suspect: Iceland lies atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a volcanically-active rift separating the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

Eight hundred years later, hydro and geothermal resource development have helped lift Snorri’s country from poverty to prosperous modernity, diversifying its economy from fishing to tourism and energy-intensive industries, such as data centers, silicon processing, and aluminum smelting.

In 2014, according to Iceland’s National Energy Authority, roughly 85 percent of primary energy use in Iceland came from indigenous renewable resources, of which 66 percent was from geothermal. Geothermal heat provides heating and hot water to approximately 87 percent of all buildings. Hydroelectric power stations with a total installed capacity of 1,986 MW supplied 72% of the country’s electricity.

Innovation in high voltage DC transmission has made exporting this energy abundance to Europe or the United Kingdom via undersea cable technically feasible. Several proposals for an interconnector have been advanced, at both governmental and private levels, and at least one detailed bathymetric investigation of a possible sea floor route has been carried out.

In October 2015, I spoke with Iceland’s Minister of Industries and Innovation, Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir. She was cautious. An interconnector is under Parliamentary study, she said, to determine what is in Iceland’s best interest. Any decision would await a consultant’s report, expected to be out early in 2016. I postponed this column until it appeared, after delays, this past summer. Its conclusion proved anticlimactic: still more study was needed.

Icelanders, I found on a recent visit, feel a profound connection to their unique and stunningly beautiful land. Even today, writes Helga Barðadóttir, senior expert in energy affairs at the Ministry of Industries and Innovation, the trolls and elves that feature alongside Snorri and his pool in the country’s legends still live large for many. Stories abound, she says, of new roads rerouted to accommodate them. There are concerns that enlarging hydropower capacity for export would mean constructing new dams in Iceland’s pristine central highlands.

Equally important, the minister noted in our conversation, is Icelanders’ wariness that an interconnector could result, in effect, in their ceding control over an important sector of their economy to the economic and energy policies of other countries. Memories of Iceland’s banking meltdown in the 2008 U.S. subprime mortgage debacle are still fresh.

In Egil’s Saga, Snorri has the wily old Kveldulf caution his grandson, the Viking Egil Skallagrímsson, about too close an alliance with the Norwegians: “I’ve no doubt that if you join King Harald’s men, you’ll prove a match for them all, and as good a man as the bravest of them. . . . [But] never try to compete with those greater than yourself—and never give way to them, either.” A balancing act today, as then, for Iceland’s decision-makers.

Jonathan Scoll

Jonathan Scoll is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. He may be reached at jonscoll@gmail.com.