Iceland: Volcanic Power For Sale

By Bill Moore

Posted: 21 Mar 2010

The above screen capture was taken from video shot overnight of a volcanic eruption on the southern coast of Iceland between two massive glaciers. The area is popular with Icelanders, where a 17 km walking path takes hikers past some of the island's most impressive waterfalls and landscapes.

According to Icelandic news reports, the fissure is a series of vents running due north and south, and appears to be stable, though there is the chance, local geologists caution, that it might also trigger a secondary eruption of another volcanic zone. The southeast corner of Iceland has known numerous eruptions over the last several hundred years. The country's most active volcano, Mt. Hekla, located some 50 km north-northwest of Eyjafjallajökull glacier, erupts roughly every ten years. The 1973 eruption on Vestmannaeyjar island buried half the town of Heimaey in lava, while further offshore, the island of Surtsey was formed from a 1963 eruption. Icelands most devastating volcanic event was the 1783 explosion of Lakagigar that ultimately caused the death of an estimated 20-25% of the population due to starvation and hydrogen flouride poisoning that killed some 80% of the island's sheep, 50% of its cattle and 50% of its horses. The poisonous cloud of gas eventually covered much of Europe. Contemporary reports speak of a fog that forced ships to remain in port and the sun described as "blood colored."

The current eruption doesn't appear to pose any similar threat, but it underscores the precariousness of life on this child of a deep ocean rift between Greenland and Scotland. It is here where the tectonic plates on which both Europe and North America meet. In Iceland, it is possible to straddle two continents with one foot in Europe and the other on North America, which I did back in 2006, as a guest of General Motors. We'd flown to the Iceland to see how it is possible to make hydrogen using electric power generated from the Iceland's abundant geothermal (volcanic) and hydropower (glacial runoff) energy, all renewable, if not entirely "emission-free," as Eyjafjallajökull demonstrates.

The eruption today is important, because discussions are taking place about selling some of the energy, in the form of electricity, to Northern Europe via an submarine high voltage DC power cable that would span the more than 800 kilometer distance between the island's southern-most coastline and Scotland's northwest Highlands. Purportedly, the island already sells power to the Faroe Islands via similar underwater cable that runs some 840 km, so repeating this exercise won't be easy, but certainly seems feasible. The idea is gaining traction as a way for Iceland to pay-off its staggering load of debt it owes as a result of its banking system collapse in late 2008, leaving it owning some €40 billion, nearly five times the nation's entire gross domestic product (GDP).

Actually, Iceland already exports a significant amount of its energy in the form of aluminum ingots. It is one of the world's leading suppliers of smelted aluminum, made from bauxite that is shipped halfway around the world from mines in Australia. It has even been proposed that this aluminum could be used in aluminum fuel cells to power vehicles, converting it back into bauxite that could be shipped again to Iceland for conversion back into aluminum. However, during my 2006 trip, I learned that Icelanders aren't all that keen on building either more smelters or hydropower dams. Now with their economy in shambles, they may be willing to consider alternatives like selling electricity to the rest of Europe where customers are said to be willing to pay four times what local rates are.

The eruption today won't likely have any serious impact on the proposal, other than to underscore the country's need for capital and the availability of raw, earth-generated power waiting to be tapped as an alternative to burning coal to power all those Nissan LEAF electric cars and high-speed trains the British plan to be deploying in the coming decade.

possible route for submarine power cable between Iceland and Scotland

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