Gemma Newman talks to Thorsteinn Hilmarsson, head of corporate communications at Icelandic power company Landsvirkjun, about the planned Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric development.

Q: Is it true that your company is planning to dam 11 rivers and tributaries in Iceland, to create a 57km reservoir that NGOs believe will be disastrous for wildlife and habitat? Hilmarsson:The plan involves developing two glacial rivers and some of their tributaries in two phases. Eighty-five to eighty-eight percent of the water comes from two main rivers. The remaining water is diverted from a number of small highland brooks. The total average harnessed flow in the rivers in question amounts to 143m3/sec. In view of the above, I believe that the number of rivers and tributaries quoted can be quite misleading with regard to the size of the project. The reservoir will be 57km2.

The main issue concerning wildlife and habitat in the reservoir area relates to reindeer that were imported into Iceland about 200 years ago and now run wild. One area that would be flooded if the project goes ahead is a birthing ground for the cows in early spring.

Research in the last two decades indicates that the reindeer also use many other areas for birthing since they are spread out from the southeast of Iceland throughout the east and into the northeast of the country. We will be publishing further research on this issue in connection with our environmental impact assessment (EIA) report. That research is being conducted under the auspices of the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. They have also co-ordinated research on vegetation and birdlife.

This area of the central highlands hosts a variety of birds, with some of them nesting there. But the reservoir bed is not a key or crucial nesting ground for any species. Over 30km2 of the contemplated reservoir bed is completely or partially vegetated, the rest is barren. Glacial rivers do not have much life in them due to the temperature and sedimentary transport, and experience shows that they can actually become more hospitable for fish and other life forms downstream once they have been dammed.

   Q: Media reports have quoted you as saying that you cannot see how Icelanders will fill all the jobs at the aluminium smelter which will receive the power from this project. So why has your company got involved with the project? Hilmarsson: If I am quoted on this, then it is a misunderstanding. In the last four years we have seen an enlargement of an existing aluminium smelter and the commissioning of another new one in Iceland. The hundreds of new jobs they created were very much sought after. In fact, in both cases about ten (Icelandic) people applied for each job on offer.

Iceland as a whole is one labour area and the country is part of the European Economic Area, which means that Icelanders have a right to work in all of Western Europe and vice versa. I frankly do not see why it would be bad to fill jobs with people from outside Iceland, if that were the case. The main issue in labour and economic terms must be whether this is a viable project that delivers job security and economic growth.

Landsvirkjun, as iceland’s national power company, has the responsibility of providing electricity to meet national demands. Whether this project will go ahead will depend on whether we can proceed with due consideration to the environment and on the basis of profitable contracts and business plans for our company as well as for our customers.

   Q: What is your company hoping to achieve? Hilmarsson: Hydro and geothermal resources in Iceland are vast, at least in comparison to the population. As such these energy resources are the largest single underdeveloped natural resource in the country. Sensible development of this has been on the agenda of all Icelandic governments for the last four decades. We as a company are interested in taking part in this, based on careful technical and environmental research, planning and design.

Iceland produces the most electricity per capita in the world. Despite that fact, annual CO2 emissions due to electricity production in Iceland are only a few kilos per person, where as that number is typically 3-4tons per person in Western countries. Our power system is totally based on sustainable energy sources with minimal emissions. We believe we can develop these resources further by taking due care in choosing individual sites, and in that way contribute to building a thriving modern society in harmony with nature.

   Q: If the smelter does not go ahead, will the planned hydro project be rejected? Hilmarsson: The EIA of the hydro project is independent of the aluminium project. Our research and planning is still valid should the plans for the smelter fall through, and we would intend to develop the project for other prospective buyers.

   Q: What are your views about the environmental risks associated with this project? Hilmarsson: Our EIA for the Kárahnjúkar hydro development is the largest and most comprehensive ever carried out in Iceland and meets international standards for EIAs. We are convinced that the EIA report will give a dependable result with a view to indicating all risks to the environment.

Both the company as well as the Icelandic authorities will base their decision on whether the project will go ahead on the premise that environmental impacts must be minimal, and that all major effects of the project are known.

External weblinks

EIA web site for the Karahnjukar project
Landsvirkjun company web site