Experts are warning of a looming energy crisis in the United Kingdom. Demand for electricity is likely to outstrip supply by more than 40% within ten years. Policies to stop coal-fired power generation by 2025, and the phasing out of ageing nuclear reactors without plans in place to build a new fleet of gas-fired electricity plants, will combine to create an “energy gap” in the UK. While reducing subsidies for renewable energy at home, the government has been casting its gaze towards the volcanic and glaciated potential of Iceland.
In October last year, David Cameron announced plans to conduct a feasibility study on the construction of a 750-mile undersea cable from Iceland, allowing the UK to exploit the country’s abundant renewable hydro-electric and geothermal energy resources. The idea is touted as having the potential to make a significant contribution to Britain’s future energy security. The cable would transmit 1000 megawatts of energy (about the same output as a medium-sized power station) and its cost is estimated at 2.5 to 3 billion Euros. It has become one of the most important political debates in Iceland.
The ‘Icelink’ idea is not a new one, and was a hot topic among Icelanders when I first visited the country in 2010. But Cameron’s intervention has given new life to the possibility of “interconnection”, and yesterday it featured in BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth programme in which a number of the issue’s key protagonists were interviewed. As I listened, I was reminded of the conversations I myself had with Icelanders while researching the impacts hydropower development there.
Proponents interviewed on the programme argue that Icelink is a “win-win” for both countries. While the UK faces an energy supply crunch, Iceland has already invested significantly in hydro-electric and geothermal energy production, to the extent that it often has a surplus which cannot be utilised. The energy is relatively cheap, and, in terms of global climate change, relatively benign and thus popularly accepted. Moreover, as well as improving the UK’s energy security, the cable can also transmit energy in the other direction in times of shortage in Iceland.
The discourses employed here in advocating the exploitation of Iceland’s natural resources are striking in their disregard of local environmental interests in favour of the global consensus on climate change and sustainable development. As one interviewee on the BBC programme put it, countries like Iceland and Norway are blessed with renewable resources, and it is important for the planet that they are utilised in a responsible way.
Eric Swyngedouw has written extensively on how the discourse of climate change is used to foreclose upon political debate on matters of concern. Thus, local voices on the implications of the construction of a hydro-electric power plant are drowned out by those forewarning of the impending global environmental catastrophe. For Swyngedouw and others, this is constitutive of the “post-democratic” nature of modern liberal governance, in which antagonisms and disagreements are prohibited and scientific expertise and consensual decision-making become the basis for properly constituted policies.
In 2011, I interviewed a number of residents in the remote Bárðardalur Valley in northern Iceland on the subject of hydropower development. The Skjálfandafljót River, which flows through the valley, was then threatened with the construction of a hydroelectric dam. The Icelanders’ connection to place was one of the most compelling themes emerging from the study. One young man described the importance of the source of the Svarta River, a small, 16 km long river which rises out of a lava field in the highlands above Bárðardalur. “That place”, he said, “is so valuable that…I can sit down and stare at it. And that’s because it’s so incredible to see so much water coming up underneath the lava.”
As the Costing the Earth emphasised, the Icelandic people have a unique relationship with their environment. The pristine wildernesses of the Icelandic interior could be said to form part of their “individual psyche and national self image”. Even advocates of developing Iceland’s energy resources claim their own close connections to the Icelandic landscape.
In February, it emerged that the Svarta River is threatened by a new plan to build a 9.8 megawatt hydropower station. Along with Icelink, there will be more proposals for larger dams, geothermal power plants, and pylons that fragment the Icelandic wilderness. In the ensuing debates, Icelanders will be compelled to lay their valued places, their sense of self, and their wellbeing upon the alter of climate change.
Their protestations will be met with cold rationality of those for whom the impacts will be least direct and severe and the benefits. We all need energy, we all need jobs, you can’t have it both ways, goes the mantra. There will be impacts, but they will be ‘minimised’, ‘mitigated’, it will be done ‘respectfully’, it won’t be destruction with a capital ‘D.’ It’s a ‘win-win.’
While here, in the UK, we all relax in the cool breeze (I was going to say warm glow…) of our carbon neutrality, valleys like Bárðardalur face being flooded and the unique Icelandic landscape faces desecration.
[My research in Iceland was supported by Rannis (the Icelandic Centre for Research) and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Intitute of British Geographers). Thanks to Prof. Chad Staddon for pointing me towards the BBC programme and Viðar Hreinsson for his insights into the current conflicts around hydropower in Iceland].