Last Wednesday I wrote about Iceland’s impressive development of renewable energy sources which provide 100% of electricity production from hydropower (80%) and geothermal (20%) sources. There is no doubt that Iceland is blessed with massive amounts of clean energy. While Iceland has garnered vast praise for its development of clean, renewable energy, some environmentalists question its uber-green reputation. For instance, some criticize Iceland’s push to attract major aluminum manufacturers, such as Alcoa, a huge consumer of Iceland’s clean energy, because the aluminum industry is not really a clean industry. Andri Smaer Magnason in his book “Dreamland” claims that Iceland’s government has sold out the country to make it one of the “largest aluminum smelters in the world” by offering low energy prices at the expense of sacrificing pristine wilderness in Iceland. Environmentalists point out that the aluminum industry is a dirty, wasteful and extractive industry in the global economy. Getting the raw materials for aluminum takes huge amounts of fossil-rich energy to mine bauxite through an extractive process that can have serious environmental consequences. Once mined, more fossil fuel is then required to ship the extracted ore from the source to Iceland’s smelters. Then, the processed aluminum must be transported from Iceland to manufacturers across the globe, consuming even more fossil fuel. These manufacturers then transform processed aluminum into billions of cans, the vast majority of which are not recycled. On balance, then, some would argue that Iceland is really exacerbating pollution, rather than remedying it with its current energy policies.
These policies show that Iceland clearly wants to be a global player in providing to the world the clean energy that it has in abundance: geothermal and hydropower. Other countries, like China, are eager to exploit Iceland’s global energy plans. China views Iceland as a potential source of cheap energy to be transported by new global resource trading routes across the Arctic Circle that are being opened by melting ice. To meet increased demand abroad Iceland will have to construct new dams, infrastructure, roads, transmission lines, etc., that could wreak havoc on its fragile ecosystem. Therefore, environmentalists are urging Iceland’s government to step back and rethink its global energy policies and to focus on using Iceland’s clean energy assets for more homegrown purposes. For instance, Icelanders have begun constructing organic greenhouse horticulture as a means of obtaining fruits and vegetables that would no longer have to be shipped from warmer climates. Enterprising Icelanders have found ways to use Iceland’s warm water and cheap energy for vast greenhouses that would produce tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers with overhead lights and ambient geothermal heat on enriched soil. In driving through the countryside I saw vast greenhouses that turned out remarkably tasty lettuce and tomatoes when I ventured from Reykjavík for a glacier hike.
Icelanders could use its clean energy sources to power its fishing fleet. Today, Iceland’s fleet catches 2% of the world’s fish using primarily fossil fuels. This fish is then whisked away to foreign consumers, at a great energy cost. Mr. Magnason in his book claims that Iceland can find ways to provide alternate power to its fleet (i.e., possibly by hydrogen) and to better process fish so that the fish crop can be exported slowly by sea and consume less energy to export.
When it comes to energy, Iceland has an embarrassment of riches of renewable energy resources. It is remarkable that a country this small (population 300,000) has had such a large impact on research and development of renewable energy sources. It will be interesting to see how Iceland continues to use them. Clearly not every Icelander favors the “bigger is better” approach because many realize this could come at an environmental cost to this remote, beautiful, rugged piece of Earth.