This November Kárahnjúkavirkjun, Iceland’s biggest hydroelectric plant, will celebrate its five-year operating anniversary.
The decision to build the plant was among the most fiercely debated political issues of modern day Iceland, the impact on the environment being the sorest point. The plant’s 57-square-kilometer main reservoir, about two thirds the size of Manhattan Island, spreads out in the uninhabitable highlands northeast of Vatnajökull glacier.
Besides the obvious environmental arguments against the plant, its critics warned of the possible economic consequences it could have, by driving nature-loving tourists from visiting the country. But the warnings fell on deaf ears. The plant was built in Iceland’s largest single construction project and has since been providing electricity to a huge aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður fjord in the East Fjords.
At the same time the flow of visitors to Iceland has continued to rise steadily like nothing happened. Actually, the highland roads built in the construction process brought access to an area of Iceland that used to be almost impossible to reach. A grievance in the eyes of some. And the 198-meter high dam, the largest of its type in Europe, has become a tourist destination in its own right.
One of the country’s most emotionally-charged ongoing disputes is the exploitation of the remaining renewable hydro and geothermal energy resources. Only around 20 to 25 percent of these energy resources have been harnessed. Some of these resources lie in areas which the nation has reached full consensus on leaving untouched. On other areas opinions vary wildly.
In 1999 the Government of Iceland initiated the development of a Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources in Iceland. The mission statement behind this work was to have a process “formulated on a scientific and impartial basis – not dominated by narrow and biased interests – and open to democratic public involvement and scrutiny.”
The Master Plan was finally finished last year. This winter the parliament will decide the final outcome. It remains to be seen if the study’s conclusions will be respected. Until then, further development of energy production in Iceland is uncertain.
However, there is nothing ambiguous about Kárahnjúkavirkjun’s legacy. It not only left a permanent mark on Iceland’s landscape but also on the mentality of the nation. A project of its scale will never be rushed through in a similar way again.
Jón Kaldal - firstname.lastname@example.org