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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 March 2007, 08:51 GMT
Iceland faces 'green' energy dilemma
By Richard Hollingham
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Iceland is keen to make a profit out of its abundant, renewable energy sources but critics are asking if it is worth the loss of so much pristine wilderness.

The dam site in Karahnjukar
Until recently this was one of the most isolated parts of Europe

Even in the bitter wind and driving snow, the view is like nothing else on Earth.

No trees, no grass, no colour.

It's small wonder astronauts came here to train for their missions to the Moon.

Beneath a leaden grey sky and the slopes of jagged, black mountains, there is a deep fissure in the ground where a steep-sided gorge winds away towards the horizon.

Until recently this was one of the most isolated parts of an isolated country, Europe's largest wilderness. It was so rarely visited that some places did not even have names.

Now it is the site of the massive new Karahnjukar dam, holding back the waters of a 57 square km reservoir.

If you look at it globally, this is clean energy
Sigurdur Arnalds, engineer

Iceland's national power company, Landsvirkjun, is building the dam to provide power for an aluminium smelter operated by American multinational Alcoa.

"The hydroelectric resources of Iceland are stranded here in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean," explained engineer Sigurdur Arnalds.

"The sole purpose of all of this is to sell electrical power to foreign industries. If you look at it globally, this is clean energy."

It is estimated that by using this "clean" energy, carbon emissions from aluminium production are reduced by some 90%.

Abundant resources

A geothermal field in Iceland
The energy may be green but the projects have fierce critics
For companies keen to stress their environmental credentials, you can see the attraction of setting up in Iceland.

There is more green energy available than the 300,000 people living here could possibly need - from glacial rivers to the underground reservoirs of hot water which can be tapped for geothermal power.

But not everyone is convinced that utilising all this renewable energy is worth the cost.

"This is the greatest irreversible environmental impact possible in Iceland," said Omar Ragnarsson, one of the country's most respected journalists.

After covering the story for the country's national broadcaster, he has ditched his career to campaign against the three new smelter projects that are now being proposed.

"The effects go all the way down to the shore and the shore will go inward. All this area will be hit with such destruction that Iceland will be shy of showing it to the world," he said.

He is not alone in his concerns.

Environmental campaigners are coming here from across the world, and Icelandic singer Bjork has written songs about Karahnjukar.

Like most people who oppose the dam, Omar is less concerned about pollution from the factories themselves than the environmental consequences of exploiting clean energy to power them.

Local excitement

However, travel down the valley to the pretty village of Reydarfjordur, the site of the Alcoa smelter, and there is tangible evidence that it is bringing a new lease of life to the area.

Gunnar and Lulu
Local residents Gunnar and Lulu feel the future is brighter for them now
People are coming here for work. There is a new shopping mall and road tunnels are being drilled through the mountains to connect scattered communities.

You will struggle to find anyone who has a bad word for Alcoa.

I visited the home of Gunnar and Lulu, who have returned to Iceland from Denmark.

"A few years ago the future here was not very bright with people moving away. Now though there're 50 new houses every year," Lulu said.

"When you look at the faces of the people who work with me and see the excitement about this huge change in this society, you can't do anything but be pleased."

As for Gunnar, he sums the new optimism up in one phrase: "Jobs create jobs."

Political issue

Men working at the dam site in Karahnjukar
The aluminium smelter is about to start production
With the smelter about to start production and elections approaching in May, preserving Iceland's unique natural environment is becoming a growing political issue.

Although it is too late to stop the Karahnjukar dam, the political opposition is confident that people will vote against any party that proposes more dams or smelters.

And even the government seems to be rethinking its policy of attracting heavy industry.

"There's no need to attract more and more to Iceland," said Iceland's newly appointed Minister of Industry and Commerce, Jon Sigurdsson.

"Aluminium is a good addition to our economy, an important part of our development, but only a part."

So which is worth more - green energy or unproductive wilderness?

With three new projects in the pipeline, Icelandic voters will need to decide whether embracing heavy industry is worth the sacrifice.

A map showing where the project is taking place

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 22 March 2007, at 1102 GMT.

It was repeated on Monday, 26 March at 2030 GMT.



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SEE ALSO
Power project charges wildlife row
15 Jan 03 |  Scotland
Bjork scorns 'crazy' Iceland smelter plan
02 Jan 03 |  Science/Nature
Bjork's mother ends hunger strike
30 Oct 02 |  Entertainment
Iceland launches energy revolution
24 Dec 01 |  Science/Nature
Country profile: Iceland
21 Dec 06 |  Country profiles

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