Tuesday, March 14, 2006

poisoning iceland

There's a shiny new Pure Iceland exhibition at the Science Museum in London. It's sponsored by large Icelandic corporations including Landsvirkjun, the power company building hugely destructive dams to power highly polluting aluminium smelters in Iceland.

Hydroelectric dams are not clean, green friends of the climate. The plantlife they submerge decays without oxygen, so it gives off methane. This is serious stuff - methane's impact on the greenhouse effect is 25 times that of CO2. The dissolved methane is released into the atmosphere as the water passes through the dam's turbines.

Even after the initial flooding of the land, the methane production continues as seasonal drops in reservoir levels allow plants to grow which are later submerged. So, for example, a study of the greenhouse effect emissions from the Curuá-Una dam in Brazil showed that, even more than a decade after filling, it was nearly four times worse than if the same amount of electricity had been generated from burning oil.

Moreover, with Iceland's glacial rivers carrying so much silt, the dams aren't even a renewable source of electricity in any real sense. Kárahnjúkar, the first dam, will silt up entirely somewhere between 50 and 400 years after opening, never to be usable again.

That silt should have gone out to sea where it would have bonded atmospheric CO2 with calcium to form calcite and other minerals. This effect is greatest in recently formed volcanic territory such as Iceland. Instead, the silt will clog up the ‘renewable’ dam and the CO2 will remain in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

I call Pure Iceland an 'exhibition', but it stretches the definition of the word somewhat. There's a 3ft model of a volcano at the entrance to a large room. The room has a couple of benches in, and projections on the four walls.
- One is of some water lapping with a mountain in the distance.
- Another shows nice natural things like waterfalls with their names in Icelandic.
- The third has some plain text facts about Icelandic life, such as the quantity of cod caught by their fishing fleet.
- The fourth has a map with brief details of things like icecaps.

All in all, you get more information from the first two pages of a guide book (or indeed the exhibition promo leaflet), and it's nothing that a 12 year old couldn't have come up with in 10 minutes.

The second room has more model volcanoes as a backdrop for the actors presenting drama interpretations and children's stories that, ahem, inform and educate the visitor.

It's only once you get round the far side through another exhibition, the BP-sponsored Energy Gallery, that you come to some computers with the info on Icelandic energy as trumpeted in the promotional leaflet.

Away from this dislocated area, the information in the main body of the exhibition is so scant that it clearly doesn't exist to educate. It exists so that people are aware of it existing, rather than coming and learning from it. It is there to get people to associate 'Iceland' with concepts like pure, natural, clean. It does so because the image is under attack from what's really going on. In short, the exhibition is greenwash.

The leaflet refers to Iceland's 'spare clean energy', as if it were already being produced and just sitting there. Kárahnjúkar is the largest infrastructure project of its kind in all of Europe. It will obliterate a vast unspoilt wilderness with direct ruinous effects on an area the size of Greater London. There are about a dozen more dams to be built if the Icelandic government gets their way.

This is neither clean nor spare. The greening of hydro is only possible by comparing some of its effects with things even more destructive.

In the UK, Scottish & Southern Electricity get their 'green electricity' from dams. Their spokesperson said 'We know some environmentalists have a problem with dams. But as far as we see it, it's power from water running down hills. The water would still run down the hills even if there wasn't a dam there. We think it's the greenest form of electricity there is.'

The water would be running down the hills, thereby giving the valley a running stream. As opposed to submerging the land and everything that lived on it, giving off huge quantities of methane whilst depriving land beyond the dam of its established water supply.

As if that's not enough, SSE's position doesn't even represent any misguided commitment to hydro electricity, merley spin on what they do anyway; it's just that dams were amongst the things they bought when British electricity was privatised.

In some ways, I wish Kárahnjúkar was happening to protected land in the UK rather than Iceland. If this were in Snowdonia we'd all be up in arms and the environmental organisations like Greenpeace who've kept a shameful deliberate silence on the matter would be making themselves heard.

As it is, it's come down to Icelanders and some brave individuals from elsewhere to mount the resistance.

1 comment:

Matt Gahan said...

Very well put and terrible news. I am constantly astonished at how well the reality of Hydro-electricity is hidden by the generally accepted view,(like there was a real debate at some point which was won) and that the environmental impact is acceptable.

I fear this, as so many other tragedies of our age, is much to do with large prestige projects that will make a few rich powerful folks richer still predicated on a lie, carefully submerged bellow the awareness of the hapless public who will gratefully accept the generaly accepted view that this is good thing.

What makes this all the more disgusting is that Iceland is blessed with a vast resource of genuinely sustainable energy. Very few countries that i can think of are so lucky.