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ICELAND: Hydropower Scheme Generates Heat

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Sep 18 2007 (IPS) - Controversy is building up over a proposal to erect a set of three hydroelectric power plants and their associated dams in the lower Thjorsa river in South Iceland.

The three stations will be known as Hvammur, Holt and Urridafoss power plants. The scheme was originally thought of as a source of energy for the expansion of the Alcan aluminium plant in Hafnafjordur, adjacent to the capital city Reykjavik. The expansion, however, was rejected by Hafnafjordur residents in a referendum at the end of March.

Many people felt there would be no more need for the plants, and the development would be dropped. This, however, is not the case.

“It has always been made clear that the plants in the lower Thjorsa were not bound to the aluminium smelter in Hafnafjordur,” says Fridrik Sophusson, CEO of Landsvirkjun, the national power company in Iceland.

“But many others have shown interest in buying energy from the hydro scheme, including the aluminium companies Nordural, Alcoa and Norsk Hydro Arctus, as well as various others, such as data storage companies. Alcan has also expressed interest in buying energy for a new smelter that it is thinking of building.” Nordural and Alcoa already operate aluminium plants in Iceland.

The power plants were originally thought of as an alternative to the Nordlingaalda diversion higher up the river. Unlike the diversion, which was in an area of great scientific value, the three plants in the lower Thjorsa are in a farming area.

The Planning Agency has already stated that the environmental impact of the scheme would be slight. But geologist Ingibjorg Elsa Bjornsdottir, who wrote about the issue in her blog, disagrees.

“The area is very dangerous geologically speaking and has not been properly researched,” Bjornsdottir says. “Tectonic plates in the region are moving, and there is a central volcano in the area as well as considerable geothermal heat and many unusual geological fissures. All of this means that the geology is very difficult for geologists to map and understand.”

Archaeological relics, potentially from the time of Iceland’s settlement, have also recently been discovered on land which will go under water if the hydropower scheme goes ahead.

For the project to go ahead, all four parish councils that border the river must agree to all the plants and dams in the scheme, and make allowances for it in their general zoning plans. The two councils Asahreppur and Rangarthing Ytra, bordering either side of the northern section of the river where the Hvammur and Holt power plants will be located, have accepted the scheme in its entirety.

Skeida and Gnupverjahreppur district council have accepted the Urridafoss plant, but panning permission for the other two is still “in process”, according to Gunnar Orn Marteinsson, chair of the council.

But there is less agreement from Floahreppur. The Floahreppur council decided in June that the Urridafoss plant would not be included in their zoning plan as there would be too much disturbance to the tourism industry, the biota in the river, the water protection zone, and land use adjacent to the plant.

A day later, Landsvirkjun came up with a series of counter-measures which it presented to the council. These included road improvement and better mobile phone reception. But the measures did not go down well with the locals when the council presented them at a public meeting a few hours later. “We’re not satisfied; the situation is incomprehensible,” said builder Albert Sigurjonsson.

“The salmon in the river will fare badly; Urridafoss waterfall will dry up, and tourism in the area will suffer,” he said. “Geothermal energy is a much better option from an environmental point of view if more energy is needed.”

Margret Sigurdardottir, district manager of Floahreppur, told IPS: “No decision has been taken yet about a general zoning plan for the area. We are waiting for the risk assessment for the area to be produced.”

Both Sigurjonsson and Sigurdardottir pointed out that neither Floahreppur nor Skeida and Gnupverjahreppur will receive any income from the scheme, as rates only go to the councils where the power plants are situated. Some people say that this is a significant issue for the district councils.

The risk assessment should be ready by the end of September. “But it will take time for Floahreppur to go through it and decide their attitude towards it, and if it makes any difference,” says Landsvirkjun’s information officer Thorsteinn Hilmarsson. “It won’t happen instantly.”

Opinion polls before and after Iceland’s general election in May showed that 67 percent of Icelanders at a national level were against the project. And opposition from the locals is considerably more.

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