In our last blog, we examined the enormous potential of Iceland’s low-cost and environmentally benign electric resources. For this edition, we will look at what makes Iceland truly different: specifically its commitment to develop its resources in a consciously sustainable fashion.
Sustainable Development of Renewables
The casual observer may think that in and of themselves, hydro and geothermal resources are truly sustainable. That’s actually not always the case. Hydro development, in particular, can have adverse impacts on its environment, including flooding of surrounding lowlands, displacement of communities, and the blocking of passage to migratory fish. To address these issues, the International Hydro Sustainability Assessment Protocol was put in place in 2010.
Iceland has been observing these rigorous standards since 2012 and first applied them to the prospective Hvammur plant and then to the operation of the Blanda hydro plant. Following the successful application of these standards, Iceland took the initiative to develop a similar protocol for geothermal developments (under a partnership with utilities and energy developers Landsvirkjun, Reykjavik Energy, HS Orka and the Icelandic Environment Agency. It was announced in March of this year that Theistareykir power plant is the first to be subjected to this protocol.
The protocol involves interviews with multiple affected stakeholders, including surrounding communities, contractors, utility employees, and various NGOs. 17 topics are addressed, including biodiversity, environmental and social management, and the utilisation of the geothermal resource itself.
A Cutting Edge Project to Fully Utilise Geothermal Resources
Traditional indigenous groups have often been praised for utilising every part of the animal hunted, with nothing going to waste. In fact, Iceland’s culture is similar in the way inhabitants approach life and work. The harsh environment and isolated island economy has created an inherent resourcefulness that goes all the way back to the Vikings. Today, it manifests itself in an approach to sustainability and lateral thinking that is evident in HS Orka’s geothermal resource park. This establishment is taking pains to ensure that all outputs from its geothermal plant are efficiently utilised.
To that end, the goal of the resource park is to utilise two or more excess resource streams associated with two geothermal plants whose main aim is to produce electricity and hot water. The waste products of one company (such as gas and fluids) are then used as the raw material for the next, in a circular economy. Corporations involved in this effort are as varied as cosmetics and biotech companies, a methane manufacturer, and fish farms, and fish-drying facilities, with 500 jobs sustained in this effort (one of every four jobs in the region).
Perhaps the most well known example is the internationally renowned Blue Lagoon Health Spa. The Health Spa’s products are based on geothermal seawater ingredients, and active ingredients from the geothermal fluid, including silica, salts, and algae – which is farmed using CO2-rich geothermal exhaust gas. Less well-known are the two plants that utilise excess geothermal steam to dry fish heads and bones – by products of Iceland’s fishing industry – which are then exported to Africa. Fish offal is also being processed to create valuable oils. Almost nothing goes to waste.
Responsible Entrepreneurialism Exported
This approach to responsible economic development characterises the Icelandic economy and the energy sector as a whole. Companies seeking to locate business in Iceland appreciate the access to reliable, affordable and clean power sources. For this reason, the data center industry is one sector that has recently been attracted to Iceland. Sustainable electrons are now being exported to the rest of the world in the form of data. International auto companies Volkswagen and BMW, as well as gaming company CCP Games and cyber-crime prevention company ThreatMetrix have now co-located some of their activities in Iceland. They have all chosen to tap into this clean, affordable, and sustainable energy economy to move their businesses forward.