The Reykjavík Grapevine
Boys were last in charge of our energy sector? Their plans went like this: A new Alcoa smelter in the east, a new Alcoa smelter in Húsavík, a new Rio Tinto Straumsvík smelter beside the old one, an expansion of the Century smelter in Hvalfjörður and a new Century smelter in Helguvík. Amounting to a total of 1.4 million tons of aluminium. Each one of them needing energy that could serve one million people in their daily lives. Each one of them demanding sacrifice of great natural wonders, wild rivers and pristine geothermal areas.
“We enter a boom after boom and never learn from mistakes.” How did they fare? The Alcoa Smelter in the East has been built, with the destruction of two glacial rivers, Lagarfljót and 50 km2 of highland beauty. The expansion of the Rio Tinto smelter was stopped and the Húsavík smelter did not go through, however, a skeleton of the Helguvík smelter is currently rising—with no power in sight. The Alcoa smelter in the north would have required all the harnessable power in the northern part of Iceland, only excluding Jökulsá á Fjöllum. Close to Mývatn, we have the Krafla geothermal area. After a long and often struggling forty-year
Issue 6 — 2013
development period, the available power from the area reached about 60 MW. Now, the goal was suddenly to quadruple the area’s energy production—expanding it by 150 MW in just a few years, and harnessing the beautiful Þeistareykir area to its utmost capacity—up to 200 MW. They also had their eyes set on Bjarnarflag and Gjástykki, delicate areas that should be regarded as national heritage sites. All this was to serve a new Alcoa factory they wanted to build close to Húsavík, the famous whale watching and fishing village in North Iceland. Having done all that, however, the energy production would still not reach the 600 MW that Alcoa really needed—the harnessing of two more glacial rivers would have been necessary: Skjálfandafljót with the waterfall Aldeyjarfoss and the glacial rivers running from Hofsjökull. The interesting thing is not how crazy this seems in hindsight, how extreme, how mad this reality was — but that outsiders did not see this plan as collective madness. The scheme was praised in international media as being a progressive plan for "clean" energy, and we still have members of parliament that regret that this did not happen. And the fact that our labour unions and politicians have referred to this when they say that "nothing is happening" in terms of business and job creation in Iceland. Or that they refer to this when they say “we have still only harnessed X% of our energy.” They are talking about this as a normal feasible future state of Iceland. Why are people so crazy? Is it or was it a good idea to indebt the nation by a total of 5 billion dollars to place two Alcoa smelting plants in the same constituency? To surround the Faxaflói bay, where 70% of Iceland's population resides, with three smelters? The answer is simple: The mad men still think so. One of the new Indepen-
dence Party MPs, Brynjar Níelsson, has no regrets for the death of the river Lagarfljót in service of Alcoa. He said it was apparent that protectionists loved a few fish more than they did people. But you can still ask like a fool: Did Iceland really have enough accumulated knowledge and manpower to multiply all our energy companies in the space of ten years? Was there never a doubt in the geologist’s mind when he found himself in a magical place such as the Torfajökull area above Landmannalaugar, Kerlingarfjöll or the steam areas around Reykjavík? Did they really want to do drill, pipe and harness EVERYTHING, right away? And do it all for the sake of a single industry—the aluminium industry. Did it have to be the role of a marginalised group of a few activists to use their spare time to criticise this?
OF “REYKJAVÍK” KNOWLEDGE I was once at a meeting in Húsavík, where I screened my film, ‘Dreamland.’ At that meeting, the local geothermal plant manager claimed he could easily harness 1,000 MW out of geothermal areas north of Mývatn. I asked if it wasn’t correct that scientists are concerned about overexploitation of the country’s geothermal areas. The scientists’ criticisms were quickly blown off the table as “Reykjavík knowledge,” and in that instant every alarm bell went off. Now we understand that power is not as plenty as the hype promised, and now
most Icelanders understand that energy production on the banks of Lake Mývatn in Bjarnarflag might just jeopardise the ecosystem in that wonderful lake. But you wonder if the people developing our most delicate areas possess good enough judgement to work close to natural wonders. It seems like they are ready to take the risk, to see what happens. I found an interview with the aforementioned plant manager from 2002. At that time, he had drilled a big hole for 170 million ISK because a Russian company potentially wanted to build an aluminium oxide factory and a giant aluminium plant in Húsavík. If one sets aside minor ethical facts, such as the Russian aluminium industry being run by the mafia at that time, one is still left to ponder the fact that almost no industry in the world produces as much and as toxic waste as aluminium oxide production (or alumina, as it is called). Those that followed the horrible events when a red slush toxic lake in Hungary broke should know what comes with an alumina refinery. But this local hard-working man had spent more than one and a half million dollars looking into the feasibility of such a plant in Húsavík. Things have been so good here that people think they are untouchable. Even though the companies engage in malevolent practices in other countries, they would never do that here. Sure.
THE HOLY LOCAL It seems that for some reason the most unbelievable hogwash gets promulgated without any critical thought. We enter a boom after boom and never learn from mistakes. We can look further back in history to see how madness is mixed up with ambition, how extreme and unrealistic views of the future are presented and taken
The Reykjavik Grapevine, Issue 6, 2013