Lured by Clean Energy, Industry Heads for Iceland

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Environmentalist Omar Ragnarsson stands outside of Iceland's first aluminum smelter i

Environmentalist Omar Ragnarsson stands outside of Iceland's first aluminum smelter, south of the country's capital, Reykjavik. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
Environmentalist Omar Ragnarsson stands outside of Iceland's first aluminum smelter

Environmentalist Omar Ragnarsson stands outside of Iceland's first aluminum smelter, south of the country's capital, Reykjavik.

Richard Harris/NPR
A hot spring at Yellowstone National Park i

Ragnarsson says the United States would never allow power plants to be built in its national parks, such as the geothermal field in Yellowstone, seen here, and neither should Iceland. Jeff Vanuga/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Vanuga/Corbis
A hot spring at Yellowstone National Park

Ragnarsson says the United States would never allow power plants to be built in its national parks, such as the geothermal field in Yellowstone, seen here, and neither should Iceland.

Jeff Vanuga/Corbis
A geothermal drill platform in northern Iceland. i

Workers change a drill bit at a geothermal drilling platform in northern Iceland. Here in a volcanic valley, the country plans to drill 20 geothermal wells, most of which will provide clean electricity for aluminum smelters. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
A geothermal drill platform in northern Iceland.

Workers change a drill bit at a geothermal drilling platform in northern Iceland. Here in a volcanic valley, the country plans to drill 20 geothermal wells, most of which will provide clean electricity for aluminum smelters.

Richard Harris/NPR

In Bali, Indonesia, this week, representatives from most of the world's nations are gathering to discuss how to tackle global warming after the Kyoto agreement expires in 2012.

One country that's ahead of the curve is Iceland. This island in the North Atlantic is the only industrial country in the world that burns practically no fossil fuels to generate electricity or to heat homes and buildings. That's because it has abundant supplies of renewable energy. In fact, Iceland has so much cheap and clean electricity, it's encouraging heavy industry to ship raw materials halfway around the world for processing on this island. Iceland says that could reduce the pollution that contributes to global warming.

Iceland's many volcanoes make Yellowstone National Park look tame. The land is stark but beautiful in an otherworldly way, with barren valleys cradling bubbling mud pots and smelly steam vents. Jagged mountains, dusted with snow, separate the valleys.

Iceland's volcanoes are still very much alive. Among other things, that means this island nation has an abundant energy supply.

All Icelanders have to do is drill and capture blistering-hot steam as it shoots up from underground.

Exporting Clean Energy

Bjarni Palsson works at the National Power Co., which is drilling new steam wells all the time. He leads a tour of one of the wells about 20 miles from the shore of Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland.

A huge drilling rig, set in a black and red volcanic valley, runs 24 hours a day.

So far, three wells have been drilled at the site. Palsson says they plan to drill about 20 holes eventually, all within a few miles of each other. The steam that comes up the holes will flow into pipes that will snake across the rugged valley and end up at a single power station.

"It's very practical, not to spoil too much land, but still being able to exploit a very large area," Palsson says.

Ultimately, 100 to 200 megawatts of energy will be produced there — enough for 200,000 households, Palsson says.

But there's a snag — there aren't 200,000 households in all of Iceland.

"Therefore, we need a big customer, like an aluminum smelter or some kind of heavy industry that requires so much energy," he says.

In fact, the holes are being drilled to accommodate an Alcoa aluminum smelter that will be constructed on the coast, about 15 miles away. Iceland actually doesn't mine aluminum ore. Instead, aluminum oxide powder will be shipped halfway around the world, from Australia. The metal that comes out of the smelter will be shipped out again, to be turned into airplanes or soda cans.

"This is our way of exporting electricity," he says.

Cleaning Up Heavy Industry

It sounds pretty inefficient, except that it takes gobs of electricity to smelt aluminum. More than 2 percent of all electricity generated in the world is used to produce this one metal. That puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the air, so Palsson says it makes economic sense — and environmental sense — for aluminum companies to seek out cheap and clean electricity.

"It's very good for everyone on this Earth that the aluminum is produced here in Icleand with clean energy rather than somewhere else with less clean energy," he says.

More than one-quarter of the world's aluminum production relies on climate-unfriendly coal as a source of electricity, so you would think the use of cleaner sources of energy would make environmentalists happy. Well, that's not so for Omar Ragnarsson.

Across the water from a stretch of rugged lava coastline on the outskirts of Reykjavik is Iceland's very first aluminum plant. Ragnarsson says he voted in favor of it 40 years ago. It came as part of a wave of economic development that helped pull Iceland out of Europe's poor-house and made it one of the wealthiest populations on Earth. But, Ragnarsson says, enough is enough. He has started a political party in a bid to block new smelters.

Environmental Uprising

"There are plans for seven huge smelters in Iceland. These smelters will require all the energy that this country can offer, and destroy all our nature," he says.

Existing smelters rely mainly on hydroelectric power — dams that have flooded river valleys across Iceland. The next wave would be powered by geothermal energy. But Ragnarsson says Iceland's volcanic landscape is a world treasure and should not be criss-crossed with steam pipes and transmission lines or pocked with power plants. Ragnarsson says it would be like asking Americans to exploit the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park.

"In Yellowstone, you see huge amounts of energy, but in America it would be a civil war if someone mentioned to harness one ten-thousandth of the hot springs there," he says.

He says smelters in other countries don't need to burn coal for power; geothermal resources similar to Iceland's can be found all around the world. Ragnarsson says Iceland should help develop geothermal energy plants overseas, in Africa, the United States and even near the aluminum mines in Australia.

"That is what we can contribute to global warming — it's to bring this technology to other nations," he says.

That is starting to happen. But for the time being, Iceland is a world leader in developing new sources of geothermal energy, and the government is taking advantage of that head-start by inviting new power-hungry industries to its shores.

Produced by Vikki Valentine

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