Electricity Shortage “Unacceptable” Says Environment Minister

Low cost of electricity in Iceland compared with the rest of Europe

Icelandic fish processing plants will need to power their operations with oil and diesel generators for the third winter in a row due to an electricity shortage, Vísir reports. This burning of oil and diesel cancels out all of the emissions saved by electric cars in Iceland thus far. Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson says the lack of green energy is unacceptable in a country that’s aiming for a green energy exchange.

Guðlaugur Þór says that the current shortage is the result of very few power plant construction projects in Iceland over the past 15-20 years. “This is not acceptable at all and we must do everything we can to resolve this as soon as possible,” he told reporters. The Minister criticised the red tape that delayed the approval of the construction of new power plant projects and called for streamlining the system.

Read More: 2021 Electricity Shortage Impacts Local Industry

Last June, the Environmental and Natural Resources Board of Appeal revoked the construction permit for the proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant in South Iceland, after the local council decided to review new information on the plant’s potential environmental impacts. The Board of Appeal emphasised that the National Energy Authority (Orkustofnun) had not followed the guidelines of the Water Council when preparing to issue a permit to the hydropower plant.

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.

Data centres use more electricity than Icelandic homes

There are also those who are sceptical of the need for additional power plants in Iceland, shifting the attention to energy-intensive industries that arguably contribute little to the country’s GDP. Snæbjörn Guðmundsson of the nature conservation organisation Náttúrugrið has expressed concern that the proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant would be used towards Bitcoin mining, a growing industry in Iceland. The National Power Company has stated that it would not build power plants for the express purpose of providing energy to Bitcoin mining companies.

Data centres (of which Bitcoin mining centres are a subcategory) in Iceland use 30% more energy than all Icelandic homes put together, and while the percentage of this energy that goes toward Bitcoin mining is not public knowledge, it could be as high as 90%.

Bitcoin Mining a Growing “Waste of Energy” in Iceland

Neither Icelandic authorities nor data centres in Iceland will reveal how much energy is used to mine Bitcoin or other digital currencies in Iceland, Snæbjörn Guðmundsson of nature conservation organisation Náttúrugrið told Vísir. Data centres use 30% more energy in Iceland than all Icelandic homes put together, and while the percentage of this energy that goes toward Bitcoin mining is not public knowledge, it could be as high as 90%.

Iceland’s abundance of renewable energy and cheap power has had both data centres and Bitcoin mining operations flocking to the country in recent years to set up shop. Iceland’s cool climate is another benefit, as data centres produce a lot of heat that would require additional energy to cool if located in a warmer climate. Both politicians and environmental activists have questioned the benefit of Bitcoin and digital currency mining operations for the Icelandic nation as well as their impact on the environment.

New hydropower plant could be used to mine Bitcoin

A 2018 report by KPMG stated that around 90% of energy used by data centres in Iceland had gone toward mining Bitcoin. In a column in Vísir, Snæbjörn refers to a recent analysis by Bitcoin expert Jaran Mellerud, who estimates that Bitcoin mining in Iceland uses around 120 MW of power, or around 85% of the 140 MW of power used by the country’s data centres in 2022. These figures have not changed much in recent years despite assertions from Iceland’s National Power Company (Landsvirkjun) that they would reduce the sale of Iceland’s energy to Bitcoin mining operations.

Snæbjörn is concerned that the proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant in South Iceland’s Þjórsá river would be used to power further Bitcoin mining in Iceland, although the National Power Company has stated that power plants would not be built solely for the energy needs of Bitcoing mining centres.

New York-based Bitcoin mining company told the Wall Street Journal last month that they would expand their operations in Iceland in response to an impending tax on Bitcoin mining in the United States. At the same time, Icelandic energy companies have stated there is no capacity for increased digital currency mining in the country.

“This is a waste of energy that should not be happening in a society like the one we live in today,” Snæbjörn stated.

More Energy Needed to Ensure Green Transition, Government Report Indicates

Krafla Mývatnssveit power plant electricity

Iceland will have to increase energy production by 125% in order to achieve a full transition to green energy, a new government report indicates. Iceland’s Environment Minister says the report can be used as a basis for decision making, but it is up to authorities how they apply the information provided. The CEO of the Icelandic Environment Association has stated that building additional power plants entails sacrificing Icelandic nature and is not a necessary step toward achieving the country’s environmental goals.

“It’s clear that this is necessary if we are to achieve the energy transition, Iceland’s Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, Guðlaugur Þór Guðluagsson, stated. “However, there are many ways to achieve that goal. And this is not a policy. It is, however, a status report and highlights how things stand. Now it is up to the Parliament and the government to work it out, how to best handle this issue.”

Innovation depends on energy availability

The report proposes six scenarios for the future of energy production in Iceland, five of which entail increasing energy production. Only four scenarios assume that the country will achieve a full energy transition by 2040: that is, completely stop the use of fossil fuels within the next 18 years. If this goal is taken into account, and a rise in energy-intensive industry is assumed, then Iceland will need to produce 125% more energy than it does today. Ensuring those energy needs are met would not only require additional power plants, but increased efficiency at existing plants, energy-saving measures, and more efficient energy usage.

Read More: Iceland’s Plan to Become Carbon Neutral by 2040

Energy production is also a key factor in innovation and job creation across Iceland, according to Sigríður Mogensen, a department head at the Federation of Icelandic Industries, and one of the authors of the government report. “Many projects have been in the works and in development, whether it is food production projects, biotechnology projects, algae cultivation, and I could go on, which have unfortunately not been possible due to a lack of electricity or the weak state of the electricity transmission system.”

Entails sacrificing Icelandic nature

“It’s a question of what decisions we make. If this becomes a reality, then we’re making the decision to sacrifice Icelandic nature,” Auður Önnu Magnúsdóttir, CEO of the Icelandic Environment Association, stated in response to the report. She does not agree that a 125% hike in energy production is necessary in order to achieve a full energy transition.

Auður has argued for “real energy-saving measures, such as diversifying tourism, coastal shipping, such as building passive buildings, using heat pumps, and taking real energy efficiency measures, such as using waste heat from power plants. Today, 80% of the energy that is produced, it goes directly to big industry. That is not sensible prioritising.”