Iceland, the 100% green country thanks to its hydroelectric plants

The largest plant built in the country is the hydroelectric one in Kárahnjúkar, built by Webuild in 2009

In a country capable of reaching nearly 100% clean energy, hydroelectric power remains the driving force behind a green race that Iceland absolutely refuses to stop. While it’s true that the first hydroelectric station was built as far back as 1904, today this form of energy production represents 80% of the total energy produced in the land of fire and ice. It’s the water from glaciers, covering 11% of the national territory, that fuels the plants active throughout the country.

With major installations already in place and many more – both hydroelectric and otherwise – yet to be built, the Icelandic National Power Company has just announced its plans. Over the next decade, construction will begin on the country’s largest wind power project, the Búrfellslundur park, where up to 30 wind turbines will be installed near Mount Vaðalda. Other new projects in the pipeline include the construction of the Hvammsvirkjun hydroelectric power plant, which will be the eighth in the Thjorsas river area (Iceland’s longest river) and Tungnaá; the expansion of the Sigalda power plant to increase energy production also in the Thjorsa river area; and a significant expansion of the Theistareykir geothermal power station in northeastern Iceland, which already has a generation capacity of around 738 GWh per year.

Kárahnjúkar, the record-breaking plant built by Webuild

The largest plant in the country is the Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric plant, built by Webuild between 2003 and 2008 in the eastern region of the country. Officially known as the Fljótsdalur Power Station, the plant was designed to produce 4,600 GW/h for the Alcoa smelter, with an installed capacity of 690 MW. The project, costing 2.5 billion euros, was named after the Kárahnjúkar mountains and collected water from the Jökulsá á Dal and Jökulsá í Fljótsdal rivers with five dams, creating three artificial reservoirs. Water from the reservoirs is diverted through 73 kilometers (45 miles) of underground water tunnels and along a 420-meter (1,380-foot) vertical penstock to a single underground power station. Among the five dams, the one bearing the name Kárahnjúkar is the most imposing and the largest of its kind in Europe. Built in rock with a concrete mountain face, it stands 193 meters (633 feet) tall and stretches 730 meters (2,400 feet) in length.

The exploitation of water resources in the Kárahnjúkar mountain area has developed in the northeastern highlands of Iceland, 300 kilometers from the capital Reykjavik and less than 200 kilometers from the Arctic Circle. The project, one of the most complex for plants of this type, required an intake tunnel nearly 40 km (25 miles) long excavated with the use of three TBMs. Due to the harsh winters, for instance, a tent had to be built for each cement pour to keep everything covered and heated. Approximately 2,000 people were employed to build the hydroelectric complex and the largest dam, accommodated in four work camps built where climatic and geographic conditions permitted.

Protecting the geothermal plant from lava

Land of volcanoes and glaciers, two sides of the same coin. And it is precisely the power of nature that represents, on the one hand, an opportunity to exploit for energy production, and on the other, a potential crisis to manage. In recent days, Iceland offered a unique spectacle when the sky was tinged simultaneously with red-orange colors and blue-green flashes. The natural phenomenon, which went viral on social media, was caused by a majestic aurora borealis above a volcano erupting near Grindavik, a fishing village on the southern Reykjanes Peninsula. This fascinating sight comes with subsequent measures to contain or divert lava flows to avoid impacting inhabited areas and various infrastructures.

In this case, the Svartsengi geothermal power plant, providing heat and electricity to around 30,000 people, was threatened, and back in November, it had already been put on alert by the National Meteorological Institute due to the consequences of a volcanic eruption. On that occasion, 4,000 people were forced to leave the village after authorities declared a state of emergency. Now, to respond to the danger of new eruptions, authorities have ordered the construction of a barrier with protective embankments and the digging of trenches because, once again, nothing can stop the production of clean energy. Not even nature.