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Iceland is famous for having inexhaustible geothermal energy resources, but did you know that most electricity comes from hydroelectric power? Read on to find out more fascinating facts about hydroelectric power in Iceland.
Iceland is a true trailblazer when it comes to using renewable energy sources. Over 99% of electricity in Iceland comes from sustainable energy! Opposite to popular belief, most of the electricity in Iceland is generated from hydroelectric power, not from geothermal energy. Around 70% of Iceland's electricity comes from hydroelectric power stations while the remaining 30% comes from geothermal power stations.
What is hydropower?
Hydropower comes from the moving water. Because the main source of energy is water, hydroelectric power plants are usually constructed near the source of water. The volume of water and the change of elevation is primary determiners of how much energy can be produced.
As you probably already know, Iceland's nature is rich in cascading waterfalls and strong glacial rivers. Over the years, Icelanders learned how to use it, not only for their recreation purposes but also to generate electricity.
Hydroelectric power is considered to be a renewable energy source since water is utilized without consuming it. There's no direct waste in the production process, and the level of greenhouse gases produced is very low compared to other types of energy plants.
On the other side, there's also geothermal energy. The difference from hydropower is that geothermal energy comes from deep beneath the surface. This energy is collected in the form of heat using low-polluting geothermal power stations.
The Controversy Behind the Hydro Energy
Despite all the positive things that hydropower brings, there's also the price to pay for sustainable energy. 400 acres of unspoiled Highland territory have been completely flooded in order to build the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant in East Iceland, meaning that the beautiful landscape was inevitably lost.
Can you imagine Iceland without one of its most beloved attractions, the Gullfoss waterfall? Us neither. But the truth is, it was almost lost once. In the 1900s, the idea occurred to harness the power of the mighty Gullfoss, one of the most beloved waterfalls in Iceland, to produce energy. At the time, the sheep farmer named Tómas Tómasson owned Gullfoss. Even though he did not agree to sell his land to an English businessman to build a hydroelectric power plant, he did agree to lease his land for power generation.
Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland
This decision deeply troubled the farmer's daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, so she put in tremendous efforts in order to save her beloved Gulfoss. She hired a lawyer, Sveinn Björnsson, to represent her in court regarding the cancellation of the rental agreement. The case dragged on for years, but Sigríður didn't give up. On some occasions, she would even go 75 miles (120 km) to Reykjavik on foot to see her lawyer, Sveinn Björnsson, who would later become the first president of Iceland.
Unfortunately, Tómasdóttir's efforts were lost in court. At some point, she even threatened to jump into Gullfoss if the hydroelectric plant construction began. Her efforts were not for nothing. Finally, her father's rental agreement was canceled, and the Gullfoss was eventually sold by her family member shortly before her death. Today, Gullfoss is owned and protected by the Icelandic government and is within the publicly accessible land.
Brief History of Hydroelectric Power in Iceland
Icelanders have over 100 of experience when it comes to designing, building, and maintaining large-scale hydropower stations. Iceland's first hydropower station was built in Hafnarfjörður in 1904. Then it produced enough power to light 15 houses and 4 street lamps. By 1937, electricity produced from hydropower replaced imported coal in Reykjavik.
By 1950, there were 530 small power stations around Iceland. In the 1960s, Icelanders started to phase out fossil fuels to generate electricity. In 1965, The National Power Company (Landsvirkjun) was founded, and by 2014, 70% of electricity in Iceland was produced by dams.
Hydroelectric Power in Iceland Today
Hydroelectric power plays a crucial part in Iceland's society to this day. It also stands as a shining example for other countries around the world of how the country can convert fully to sustainable energy. Today, Iceland is focused on sharing its knowledge and expertise in sustainable development with others. For decades, Icelandic engineers have been providing technical assistance and renewable energy education worldwide.
Lagarfoss Hydroelectric power plant in Iceland
Iceland's conversion to sustainable energy attracts attention, not only from professionals in the field but also from the media. In 2020, a popular streaming service provider, Netflix, aired the documentary series "Down to Earth with Zac Efron", which was dedicated to traveling, nature, green energy, and sustainable living practices. In the first episode of the show, Zac Efron with his crew visited Iceland and its famous spots. The crew visited Ljosafoss Hydropower Station, Gullfoss Waterfall, and many other famous places around Iceland.
You can watch the full episode of "Down to Earth with Zac Efron" on Netflix. Here's a short excerpt from the episode:
Waterfalls and hydroelectricity in Iceland
The relationship between those who want Iceland's waterfalls to remain untouched and the hydroelectricity industry has been tense. Many people, especially large foreign corporations, view the country's powerful rivers as an opportunity for profit. However, the development of hydroelectricity requires significant construction, including dams and reservoirs, which can drastically change the landscape and the flow of the river, potentially harming or destroying waterfalls.
Sultartangavirkjun Hydroelectric Power Plant in upper Thjorsardalur Valley Iceland
A power plant project was proposed in 1975 but faced opposition until 2002. Despite criticism, it was approved with support from Alcoa, the Icelandic government, and Landsvirkjun. The Kárahnjúkavirkjun plant controversy is highlighted in documentaries, while the Búðarhálsvirkun plant caused damage to Sigöldafoss waterfall and others are disappearing due to reduced river flow.
Sigöldufoss waterfall by the Tungaá river in Iceland
The preservation of Gullfoss, also known as the Golden Waterfall, sparked a well-known disagreement. A statue of Sigríður Tómasdóttir now stands proudly at Gullfoss, honoring her as an environmental heroine and farmer's daughter. Sigríður shared her father's deep love and appreciation for the waterfall, which was threatened by rich and powerful men seeking to exploit its hydropower potential. Her father famously stated, "I do not sell my friends" in response to their proposals.
Sigríður was born near the waterfall at Brattaholt in 1874 and remained there until her death in 1957. Despite her rural lifestyle, she was a fierce advocate for preserving Gullfoss and even traveled 120 km to Reykjavík to plead her case before powerful men. She even threatened to throw herself into the falls! Thanks to her efforts, Gullfoss was finally granted preservation status in 1979.
Gullfoss Waterfall - the famous Golden Circle attraction in Iceland
Einar Benediktsson, a well-known Icelandic poet, entrepreneur, and controversial figure, had a plan back in 1927 to build a dam at Urriðafoss waterfallfor a hydroelectricity plant. However, if this plan had been executed, it would have resulted in the permanent destruction of the magnificent falls located at the mouth of Iceland's longest river, Þjórsá. This river flows from the highlands to the lowlands, and it reaches its peak volume at Urriðafoss.
In 1914, Einar founded Fossafélagið Títan (The Titan Waterfall Company) with the aim of constructing hydroelectric plants. His passion for this project even found its way into his poetry. Although the company acquired some rights, it was unable to secure sufficient financial support to proceed.
For years, many have tried to propose hydroelectric power plant plans for Urriðafoss, but they have all been rejected due to significant objections. However, the fight to protect this natural wonder is ongoing. In 2014, the Industrial Affairs Committee of the Icelandic Parliament announced plans to classify eight areas, including Urriðafoss, as potential options for future hydropower plants. These areas were previously designated as preservation or standby areas. Reclassifying them would be the first legal step toward construction.
Unsurprisingly, a political and environmental opposition group, Landvernd, based in Reykjavík, released a statement claiming that the majority decision of the AIAC goes against the goals and intentions of the Master Plan. They also alleged that five of the eight proposals did not follow proper legal processes. This debate is likely to generate strong opinions and emotions for many years to come.
Hydroelectric Power Stations in Iceland
As mentioned before, over 99% of Iceland's electricity comes from renewable sources, most of them being hydroelectric dams. That means that hydroelectric power plants in Iceland must be well connected to the main cities and villages. Only Grimsey and Flatey islands are not connected to the grid and rely on diesel for energy.
Over 70% of electricity is generated in hydroelectric power stations. Historically, all the hydroelectric power stations are run by Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland. For now, the largest power station in Iceland is Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant. It generates electricity in the north Vatnajökull area, which is needed for aluminum production.
Laxarvirkjun hydroelectric power plant in Iceland
Here's a list of all the hydroelectric power stations in Iceland:
Kárahnjúkar - operating since 2007, generates energy for Fljótsdalshérað municipality;
Búrfell - operating since 1969, generates energy for Skeiða-og Gnúpverjahreppur municipality;
Búðarháls - operating since 2013, generates energy for Ásahreppur municipality;
Hrauneyjafosstöð - operating since 1981, generates energy for Ásahreppur municipality;
Blanda - operating since 1991, generates energy for Húnavatnshreppur municipality;
Sigalda - operating since 1977, generates energy for Ásahreppur municipality;
Sultartangastöð - operating since 2000, generates energy for Skeiða- og Gnúpverjahreppur municipality;
Vatnsfell - operating since 2001, generates energy for Ásahreppur municipality;
Írafossstöð - operating since 1953, generates energy for Grímsnes- og Grafningshreppur municipality;
Lagarfoss - operating since 1975, generates energy for Múlaþing municipality;
Steingrímsstöð - operating since 1959, generates energy for Grímsnes- og Grafningshreppur municipality;
Ljósafossstöð - operating since 1937, generates energy for Grímsnes- og Grafningshreppur municipality;
Laxárstöðvar - operating since 1939, generates energy for Þingeyjarsveit municipality;
Mjólkárvirkjun - operating since 1958, generates energy for Ísafjarðarbær municipality;
Andakílsárvirkjun - operating since 1947, generates energy for Borgarbyggð municipality.
Want to learn more about Iceland's sustainable way of life? Explore our range of eco-friendly tours, dedicated to preserving Icelandic nature.