Lava Crosses Grindavík Road, Hot Water Supply at Risk

A screenshot from RÚV. Lava flowing over Grindavíkurvegur around 10:00 AM on February 8, 2024

Update 12:23 PM: Lava reached the hot water pipeline just after noon today, cutting off the hot water supply on Reykjanes. Authorities are responding to the situation and more information will be available shortly.

Lava from the eruption that began this morning on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula has flowed across the road to the town of Grindavík. The peninsula’s hot water supply is at risk of being cut off by the advancing lava, and the Civil Protection Department has raised its alert phase for the area to “danger” as a result. The eruption is localised within a small area and flights to and from Iceland are not affected.

Residents and businesses asked to limit hot water use

Lava is now flowing toward the main pipeline that transports hot water from Svartsengi Power Plant to Reykjanesbær. If lava does flow over the pipes, it will cut off hot water supply to the towns of Reykjanesbær, Suðurnesjabær, Grindavík, and Vogar. According to the current rate of flow, this could happen within the next few hours.

As a precaution, civil protection authorities ask residents and business on the Reykjanes peninsula to lower their indoor heating, limit hot water use, and avoid using hot water for showers, baths, or hot tubs. In addition, locals are asked to delay turning on electrical heating systems and devices for as long as possible in order to not overwhelm the system. Locals are also asked to give responders leeway to do their necessary work.

A foreseeable scenario

Icelandic authorities had foreseen this potential scenario and had begun work on laying an underground pipeline in the area where the eruption is now taking place. A 500-metre long section has been laid that could replace the current pipeline if it is destroyed by lava, but it could take several days to put bring the new pipeline into use. Hot water reserves for the area can last around 12-14 hours if used sparingly.

Indications of Magma Chamber Under Svartsengi

svartsengi power plant reykjanes

As the eruption that began near Sýlingafell on Monday night appears to be ending, scientists say there are indications of a magma chamber underneath the nearby Svartsengi area. Construction of an underground pipeline has begun to ensure heating will not be cut off in case of an eruption affecting the Svartsengi Power Plant.

The eruption by Sýlingafell is part of a chain of events that has been ongoing since at least 2020, Halldór Geirsson, an associate professor in geophysics at the University of Iceland, told RÚV. This chain of events stretches across the Reykjanes peninsula, whose multiple volcanic systems have shown increased activity since the 2021 Fagradalsfjall eruption.

Magma in current eruption likely travelled under Svartsengi

Halldór says the magma in the ongoing eruption “probably comes from some kind of magma chamber that is there under Svartsengi, or possibly lies from Eldvörp and to the Sundhnúkar area, or at least that is one way to look at it.” The chamber is likely located at a depth of 5-7 km [3.1-4.3 mi]. Geochemistry, earthquake data, and the eruptions in the area since 2021 all point to its existence, according to Halldór.

Digging begun for new pipeline

Svartsengi is the site of a power plant that supplies most of the Reykjanes peninsula with water and electricity. Around 30,000 people depend on the supply of hot water from the plant, which is provided through the Narjðvík pipeline. This pipeline, however, is above ground, and is vulnerable to lava from potential eruptions, particularly where it passes through low-lying areas. RÚV reports that construction on an alternative underground pipeline has begun, but will take some time to complete.

Construction of above-ground barriers to protect the power plant from lava flow is nearly complete.

Construction of Reykjanes Lava Barriers Begins

Reykjanes Svartsengi power plant

The construction of lava barriers around Svartsengi Power Plant and the Blue Lagoon has begun. The barriers are meant to protect important infrastructure on the Reykjanes peninsula in case of an eruption, which is still considered likely in the coming days or weeks. Iceland’s Parliament approved a bill just before midnight last night to enable the building of lava barriers, which will be financed through a tax hike.

An ambitious project

The barriers will be 6-8 metres [20-26 feet] high and are expected to take 30-40 days to complete, Vísir reports. The gravel and soil used to build them are being mined from nearby Stapafell mountain. Minister of Justice Guðrún Hasteinsdóttir stated yesterday that the preparations for building the barriers are going well. Protecting the Svartsengi Power Plant is critical as it provides water and electricity to the entire Suðurnes region.

200 companies and 2,000 workers affected

Both Guðrún and Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson expressed the government’s desire for assisting Grindavík in repairing the damage the town has sustained, as well as supports its residents who have been evacuated from their homes and who may also face unemployment. Nearly 200 companies with around 2,000 employees operate within the evacuated area, and face uncertainty as to whether and when they may continue operations. The Directorate of Labour has stated that affected workers will be eligible for retroactive unemployment benefits from yesterday.

Lava barriers financed with a tax hike

The lava barriers will be financed by levying an additional tax on property owners in Iceland equivalent to 0.08% of their property’s fire insurance valuation (brunabótamat). The owner of a property worth ISK 100 million [$695,000, €650,000] will therefore pay an additional ISK 8,000 [$56, €52]. The tax will be levied for a period of three years, though it bears noting that similar taxes imposed in Iceland have later become permanent.

Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir and Centre Party Chairman Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson argued that any lava barriers constructed should be paid for with existing tax revenue. Some locals have argued that the privately-owned Svartsengi Power Plant and Blue Lagoon, which have made significant profits in recent years, should partake in financing the barriers.

Read more about the ongoing seismic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula.

Delay Issuing Permit for Hydropower Plant

A local council in South Iceland has postponed issuing a permit for the construction of a large hydropower plant on Þjórsá river to consider new information about the project’s potential environmental impacts, Vísir reports. The proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant would have an estimated capacity of around 95 MW and would create a lagoon with a surface area of 4 square kilometres [1.5 square miles].

Salmon fishermen and conservationists oppose power plant

The locality of Rangarþing ytra’s website states that a new message has been received from the Iceland’s North Atlantic Salmon Fund and the Fishing Association of Þjórsá river (Veiðifélag Þjórsár) calling on the local government to reject the National Power Company of Iceland’s request for a construction permit for the plant. “It was suggested that the matter be postponed until the next extraordinary meeting of the local council to give the locality’s environmental committee the opportunity to discuss the matter, given that new information regarding certain environmental aspects has been received,” the meeting minutes state.

One other local council is required to sign off on the hydropower plant’s construction permit, the council of Skeiðahreppur and Gnúpverjahreppur, and head of the local council Haraldur Þór Jónsson told reports the permit would be processed despite the delay in Rangarþing ytra. The National Power Company applied to the two localities for a construction permit for the plant last December after the project was approved by the National Energy Authority of Iceland.

Energy-intensive industries are largest consumers

The Hvammsvirkjun plant would have an estimated capacity of 95 MW. For comparison, Iceland’s largest hydropower plants are the Kárahnjúkar and Búrfell plants, with respective capacities of 690 KW and 270 KW. Both were built to provide power to aluminium smelters. Hellisheiði Power Station is Iceland’s largest geothermal power plant, with a capacity of 303 MW.

Snæbjörn Guðmundsson of nature conservation organisation Náttúrugrið has expressed concern that the proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant would be used towards Bitcoin mining, a growing industry in Iceland that is energy-intensive but contributes relatively little to the country’s GDP. The National Power Company has stated that it would not build power plants for the express purpose of providing energy to Bitcoin mining companies.

Minister Urges Infrastructure Improvements ASAP: ‘We need to take this seriously’

Infrastructure on the Reykjanes peninsula needs to undergo significant reinforcement and expansion as soon as possible in order to preclude major disruptions during a potential volcanic eruption, RÚV reports. Jón Gunnarsson, Iceland’s Minister of Justice, who also oversees Civil Defense issues, says that existing construction regulations, such as conducting environmental assessments and accepting bids from a range of contractors, may need to be circumvented to ensure that infrastructural improvements can be made in a timely fashion.

The Reykjanes Peninsula continues to be rocked by earthquakes. Last week, the Icelandic Met Office reported that 14 earthquakes measuring M3.0 or larger were detected. Most of these occurred on the peninsula, which is experiencing earthquake swarms due to uplift at Svartsengi power plant and Mt. Þorbjörn. This uplift has been confirmed by both GPS sensors and satellite imagery. The largest earthquake on Reykjanes at time of writing was M3.5, on May 18. Another earthquake measuring M3.2 took place north of Mt. Þorbjörn on Sunday. According to the Met Office, the seismic unrest on the peninsula increases the likeliness of a large earthquake (M6.0 – M6.5) earthquake in the Brennisteinsfjöll mountains. There is also risk of landslides due to strong earthquakes close to the Eldvörp crater row.

Hot water and electricity serving 30,000 people at risk

Civil Defense representatives attended a meeting of the council of ministers on Friday and reviewed various eruption scenarios. Of particular concern is the infrastructure on Reykjanes that manages the production of hot and cold water, as well as electricity, for 30,000 people.

Land around Þorbjörn has risen four centimetres since the end of April, and it’s clear that the Svartsengi power plant, the peninsula’s primary energy producer, could be in danger if there is an eruption in the area. As such, Jón believes it’s important to have alternative sources of water ready for residents in the area. “We need to look for new water sources and build a new heat exchange system somewhere else, so that we’re sure we can supply enough hot water. And in my opinion, we need to speed up construction of Suðurneslína 2.” (Suðurneslína 2 is a long-debated powerline that would run from around Grindavík to the outskirts of Hafnarfjörður.)

A cost assessment has not yet been conducted for Jón’s proposed infrastructural reinforcements, but he says the investment is a worthy one regardless. “It will be much cheaper for us to try and intervene now, as quickly as we can; it’s still going to take time.”

Construction projects such as these usually have to proceed according to a set of standing regulations, namely the acceptance of multiple project bids and the conducting of an environmental assessment. “I think we’ve been trying to get [Suðurneslína 2] going for at least ten years,” remarked Jón. “I think we’ve got to intervene here—this is an urgent matter and it’s important to protect the well before we’re hit by disasters. We may need to push such regulations aside and prioritize the construction of additional infrastructure and wellsprings that we can then integrate into our utility systems if something were to happen at Svartsengi to hinder its operations.”

‘The faster we work, the better’

After the eruption at Fagradalsfjall, experts at the University of Iceland, the Met Office, and engineering firm Efla were commissioned to assess the infrastructure on Reykjanes and propose measures to protect it from lava flow near Grindavík and Svartsengi. The final report is not yet ready but will include probable origin points and lava flow measurements.

RÚV obtained an overview of the pending report, the main conclusion of which is said to be that new infrastructure, utilities systems, and transportation systems are needed in the area. This conclusion is underpinned by the knowledge that if an eruption was to start in the specified areas, there would be very little time to enact protection measures, as there are many possible eruption sites that are very close to important existing infrastructure.

“The faster we try to work and make decisions about this, the better,” concluded Jón. “I think we need to set this in motion as quickly as we possibly can—this is a reminder to us about what’s happening out there, and we need to take this seriously.”

Proposal for Expanded Highland Protections Protested

Energy companies and some local municipalities are hotly contesting a new proposal to expand environmental protections within the Icelandic highlands, RÚV reports. Per a proposal put forth by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, a new and expanded national park would include Vatnajökull National Park – already the largest national park in Western Europe – as well as 85% of the central highlands.

The boundaries for the new national park were suggested by a bipartisan committee appointed by the ministry in April 2018. The committee, which included MPs from all of the sitting parties in Alþingi as well as representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, maintains that expanding the boundaries of the protected area would not negatively impact Vatnajökull National Park’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The proposal has since been opened for public comment, but will only remain so for the next two weeks, or until August 13.

Although the Association of Local Authorities has been part of the proposal process, however, many municipalities whose boundaries fall within the proposed national park feel that they were not appropriately consulted.

Ásta Stefánsdóttir, head of the district council of Bláskógabyggð in West Iceland says that it was the committee’s job to make proposals about the new national park, not to specifically evaluate the pros and cons of whether this should be done at all. Bláskógabyggð feels that this evaluation has yet to be done and that the current proposal represents an encroachment on the zoning power of local municipalities.

“There are large areas within the highlands that are within Bláskógabyggð and farmers and residents have put a lot of work into reclaiming the land, for instance, in marking riding trails and guiding traffic there, i.e. ensuring that people don’t enter sensitive areas and the like. People are only concerned because if there is some kind of centralised agency, some kind of government agency, which oversees this, that that will somewhat undercut all this volunteer work that people have done.”

Energy companies have also expressed opposition to the proposal. Samorka, the federation of energy and utility companies in Iceland, says that under the new protections, that all new energy generation and transmission would be prohibited in almost half of the country, making current laws about energy protection irrelevant.

For its part, Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, says that it is necessary that all of its power plants remain outside of protected areas and says that the utilisation of energy resources in the highlands have considerable economic significance for the country overall. The renewable energy produced in the highlands, it says, is the foundation of the nation’s economy and overall quality of life today.

‘This untouched nature needs to be spared’

Strandir wilderness

Thirty landowners from the municipality of Árneshreppur have issued a joint statement protesting three planned hydropower plants which are to be located in the remote Strandir region, RÚV reports. The group says the development will do damage to the area around the Drangajökull glacier.

The landowners’ statement was delivered to the Árneshreppur municipal council, which recently issued a preliminary construction permit that allows for road construction at and around the site of one of the three intended plants, Hvalárvirkjun, as well as the building of a bridge over the Hvalá river, worker’s facilities, and a sewage system, as well as geological surveys around the site. The letter was also sent to the Minister of Industries and Innovation, Þórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir, the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, and the chairs and vice-chairs of all the parties in parliament.

This is not the first protest that has been issued regarding power plant development in the region. Earlier this week, four nature conservation associations brought charges against the development permit the municipal government of Árneshreppur issued for the first phase of the Hvalárvirkjun power plant in the Westfjords. For one thing, they say, issuing a permit for this first phase of construction, ostensibly for research purposes, is an illegal way to go about obtaining a permit for the entirety of the project. The associations also take great issue with the environmental damage that they say the project will have on the surrounding area.

 

An “attack on the nature of Strandir”

“We the undersigned owners of properties in Árneshreppur object because the area surrounding the Drangajökull glacier will be permanently disturbed by the hydroelectric power plants…” reads the landowners’ statement.

“Along the rivers that are intended to be harnessed—the Rjúkandi, Hvalá, and Eyvindarfjarðará—there are numerous waterfalls large and small and on the health to the south of Drangajökull there are brilliant blue mountain lakes that few people have ever seen. This untouched nature needs to be spared, as do the wildernesses that form one continuous and delicate ecosystem. There will be no way to reclaim this unspoiled wilderness once it is damaged by the three hydropower stations that HS Orka and Landsvirkjun are planning for the area (Hvalárvirkjun and Skúfnavatnavirkjun, as well as Austurgilsvirkjun). We declare that we will spare no effort in halting this attack on the nature of Strandir…”

 

Development plants ‘anachronistic in today’s society’

“These grandiose power plant ideas are entirely anachronistic in today’s society,” the letter continues, noting that the protection of unspoiled natural areas is an increasing priority in Iceland. The landowners also contend that the power plant would do nothing to increase electricity security for Westfjord residents themselves: “The electricity will be sold to the highest bidder in the south, most likely to data centres that mine for digital currency, such as Bitcoin.”

The letter concludes by urging the addressees to “listen to those who are nearest to this danger and who want to think of the future.”