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Hydroelectric Power in Iceland

The power of Iceland's waters goes beyond beauty

|June 2, 2022
Gabija is passionate about traveling and writing. In her free time, she likes to read, try out different cuisines, or embark on outdoor adventures.

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.

Infographic of Renewable Energy in Iceland

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.

 

Hydropower in Iceland - Responsible Renewable Energy, Effectively Transmitted

 

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.

Rainbow at Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland

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 Station in Iceland

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:

 

Down To Earth With Zac Efron | Tectonic Plates Clip | Netflix

 

Want to travel in the footsteps of Zac Efron and his crew? We have great news! Our Golden Circle & Geothermal Energy tour visits the key places where the crew also went!

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 Power Plant in Iceland

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.

 


References:

  1. Renewable Energy in Iceland article by Visit Iceland.
  2. Hydropower in Iceland article by Green by Iceland.
  3. Electricity_sector_in_Iceland article by Wikipedia.
  4. Official Government of Iceland website. Accessed 27 May 2022.
  5. Halla Hrund Logadóttir (December 2015, No. 3 Vol. LII, Sustainable Energy) Iceland's Sustainable Energy Story: A Model for the World.
  6. List of power stations in Iceland, Wikipedia.
  7. Down to Earth with Zac Efron article by Wikipedia.
  8. The Badass Woman Who 'Saved' this Icelandic Treasure article by Ozy media company.

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