Iceland wrongly receives worldwide praise for sustainability

WRITTEN BY | Lauren Bos
10 May 2017

Countries worldwide are highly impressed with the Icelandic policy on energy. But this is not completely justified, argues journalist Lauren Bos in her critical report about Iceland’s sustainable reputation. She went to Iceland to talk to the CEO of environmental organisation Landvernd, an engineer from HS Orka (the operator of Svartsengi-station, a huge geothermal energy station of which the waste water fills the pools of the The Blue Lagoon, the nation’s biggest tourist attraction); and a botany professor at the University of Iceland.

REYKJAVIK – It is 1 o’clock in the afternoon and the sky has an orange-pinkish colour. Since its rise that day, two hours earlier, the sun has been in a constant state of setting. The temperature outside is far below freezing and my thermo wear is not keeping me warm. Little creeks flow alongside the road. Steam is coming from the creeks and one is strongly discouraged from touching the steaming water.

In the upper north of Europe lies the obviously volcanic island that is Iceland. Besides the volcanic soil, the island is also home to the other extreme: ice, loads of ice. 3600 cubic kilometres of glaciers. This would be enough to cover the entire country of The Netherlands in an 8 centimetre thick layer of ice. All of this beautiful nature also has its uses. The country is known globally for its sustainable way of generating electricity through these natural resources. The ice water from the glaciers and the precipitation mainly help generating electricity (hydroelectric power). The soil stores heat, which is used to provide heating for the Icelandic households (geothermal energy). A month ago, during the Conference on Climate Change in Paris, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, claimed to want to take over Iceland’s policy on energy in Scotland. Furthermore, Dubai presented its report on its green economy of 2016 in the company of the Icelandic president. The other countries are highly impressed with the Icelandic policy on energy. But this is not completely justified.


The government of Iceland promotes its sustainable reputation and uses it to pull foreign companies that use loads of energy, such as aluminium factories, towards the country. According to Gudmundur Gudbrandsson, CEO of environmental organisation Landvernd, companies choose to locate to the island for a different reason. ‘’The energy here is so cheap, and companies are simply still economically minded.’’ The cheap energy is also the reason why Icelanders use by far the most energy in the world. Personally, I already feel guilty when I have left the light on in a room I have not been in for five minutes. After speaking to a couple residents, this feeling is unknown in Iceland, even after a whole day at work. ‘’When I come home from work and notice I have left the lights on all day, I do not really care. I barely see the consequences on my electricity bill,’’ says resident Jóhann Franks. Theódór, resident of Reykjavik, also admits to leaving the heat on when no one is home, even if he and his wife are on vacation for a month. ‘’We do not want to come home to a cold house,’’ he tells me at the kitchen table, grinning. He gives me an encouraging pat on the back when he sees the perplexed look on my face. They do not bother with timers for the heating. Neither do they care that the lights are on in several rooms, when the elderly couple moves to the living room to watch TV.


But what do these Icelandic energy-munching matter when the energy is sustainable anyway? The term sustainability knows multiple definitions. Countries mostly look at the CO2 emissions. They became apparent once more during the Conference on Climate Change in Paris. The conference was successful, because all participating countries agreed to do everything they can to lower their CO2 emissions and thereby save the Earth.  Lower CO2 emissions, in theory, would mean a lower rise of temperature. Ecosystems would stay intact for a longer period of time and next generations would have to deal with fewer consequences from their ancestors’ behavior. In short, the less carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the better. Iceland emits very low amounts of CO2, especially for a western country. It is because of this that it gets praised for its sustainable generation of energy by other countries.

Another definition of sustainability was given by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987: ‘’Sustainable development is the development that corresponds with the needs of the present, without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to provide for their own needs. This obviously does not go for the fossil fuel supplies, which will run out in a couple years. Less obviously, this also does not go for Iceland’s natural resources. ‘’Iceland’s energy is able to recover itself, but that does not mean it is sustainable,’’ says Landvernd CEO Gunbrandsson. A fuel is only completely sustainable if it is generated in the same amount as it is used in an equal period of time. Then there always is an equal amount of energy present, which will leave the future generations with the same quantity.

Geothermal energy

Up ahead I can see several steam clouds rising up into the sky. They make the geothermal power stations easily recognizable. Even the visually impaired would be able to recognize the stations by the huge smell of sulphur flying into their nostrils. The Svartsengi-station is located in the southwest of Iceland, right next to one of the largest tourist attractions of the nation: thermal pool and spa, the Blue Lagoon. The popular spa is very connected to the geothermal power station. This is because Svartsengi’s waste water fills the pools of the Blue Lagoon. ‘’This station has a 190 Megawatt capacity, enough to facilitate more than 200.000 households with heating,’’ says Albert Albertsson proudly during our walk through the station. It is warm and it smells of rotten eggs. ‘’I cannot think of a nicer smell.’’ Albertsson is an engineer for HS Orka, the operator of the geothermal energy station. The volcanic activity on the island causes the underground water to be warmed by magma up to 100 degrees Celcius. The station pumps this boiling hot water to the surface to then spread it to thousands of households. The use of geothermal energy is risky. If a so called hotspot is used excessively for years, it does not get enough time to recover and preserve heat. This causes the hotspot to cool, which could take hundreds, even thousands of years according to scientists. Albertsson thinks this stance is a bit extreme. ‘’If a hotspot is overused for ten years, it will recover in ten years. I know this from experience.’’ To prevent cooling, part of the waste water is injected back into the ground. This way, the amount of fuel stays sufficient. Yet, Albertsson also agrees that hotspots will not be usable forever. ‘’We expect this station will be in use for another one hundred years, but nobody knows for sure.’’ This uncertainty is caused by earthquakes, which in turn are caused by the injection of the waste water back into the ground. These earthquakes could cause hotspots to become unusable, but they could also create new ones. Albertsson thinks the earthquakes will help him out. ‘’The biggest hotspots are already in use. Maybe an earthquake will open up another large hotspot.’’


‘’Ridiculous,’’ says Gudbrandsson. ‘’The only ones profiting from these earthquakes are geothermal energy exporters. The quakes cause turmoil amongst the Icelanders.’’ Gudbrandsson mostly blames the government for the excessive production of geothermal energy. ‘’The government does not attempt to limit the amount of energy that is allowed to be generated. Because of the pressure of energy-munching companies and the energy-export to other countries, the production keeps increasing and the chances of cooling get larger.


Nearly three-quarters of the in Iceland generated electricity comes from hydropower. The presence of natural hydropower can be observed through the entire country in the form of large waterfalls. These falls are still there during winter, when the average temperature is around freezing point and the supply of ice water from glaciers is at its lowest. The ice water supplies and precipitation are stored in huge reservoirs. The building of these reservoirs can throw local ecosystems for a loop. Fish get chopped up by the turbines that generate electricity from hydropower. This is being increasingly prevented through the building of fish-guiding systems, which guide fish away from the turbines. The bright, environmental friendly, sustainable image of hydropower in Iceland is missing some huge dark pieces,’’ says Þóra Ellen Þórhallsdóttir, botany professor at the University of Iceland. Þórhallsdóttir has been researching the use of hydropower and geothermal energy for seventeen years. Iceland is not running out of water, not even in hundreds of years. However, the rise of temperature make the glaciers melt fast. For now, that means a higher amount of energy being generated from hydropower than was expected. Nonetheless, researchers claim this will come to an end in about 200 years. ‘’It will still be raining in 200 years, but the patterns we observe in ice water will be completely different, both seasonally and spatially.’’ According to Þórhallsdóttir, this means the hydropower stations that are in use now will be completely useless in the future. ‘’The water will spread much more and there will be no more glaciers. It will be very expensive to trap this water.’’ So, hydropower will never run out, but new methods will have to be found in order to keep using it in the future.

It is 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the sky is getting increasingly darker. The sun has vanished below the horizon. Iceland was allowed five hours of sunshine today. I take a hot shower to become warm again. When first opening the tab, I burn my skin on the hot water beams from the showerhead. Well, that is what life is like using geothermal energy. For as long as it lasts.

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