Blank spots on the map of biological and geological diversity
Unsuspected global implications lie hidden under the calm surface of the Búðarháls dam. The energy generated by the water flowing through hydroelectric power plants has always been considered clean and environment-friendly. In Iceland, hydroelectric power plants, together with geothermal power plants, are the dominant source of energy, and the country has earned a reputation for being environmentally conscious. However, a slightly different story is unfolding around the Búðarháls Dam.
Búðarháls is Iceland’s newest hydroelectric power plant. Along with five other plants, it is situated on the Þjórsá River. The network of dams, dominated by the largest of them, Kárahnjúkar, has sparked protests during the years of its construction. Hydroelectric dams contribute greatly to the destabilization of ecosystems and create large blank areas in the diverse map of living organisms.
Energy can serve many purposes. Power produced by Búðarháls and other dams is primarily intended to feed US-owned giant aluminium plants. Their environmental impact is in stark contrast to the country’s public claims in the area of nature conservation. Much of Iceland’s cheap electricity is gobbled up by giant data centres run by multinational companies lured in by the government. Iceland is becoming an energy start-up, having stumbled on a golden vein of power that the country is giving away almost for free.
At second glance, its price seems too high. Beneath the surface of the Búðarháls dam, we find evidence indicating something different than a smooth operation of infrastructure built on water. It points directly to the climate crisis itself, which knows no boundaries and has also affected Iceland, as apparent from the rapidly receding glaciers.
Búðarháls: Electricity generated in underwater drama
The existence of Iceland's newest hydroelectric power plant, located on far-inland Lake Sultartangalón is heralded by the vast system of massive high-voltage pylons and artificial canals that scarify the landscape. The austere-looking complex of concrete buildings wedged into the lake’s shoreline is controlled remotely from the capital. Electricity is generated here without human staff and mainly feeds massive aluminum plants at the ocean's edge. Thanks to geophones attached to the fence protecting the transformer or to the dam railing, the processes that take place inside the facility become audible. The sounds also echo the deeper impacts that electricity production has on the landscape. Microphones below the surface of the water, which has engulfed a huge number of organisms, pick up bubbles of methane. The sound of a process that is invisible to the eye illustrates the risks accompanying the absence of carbon dioxide production in hydroelectric power production, as methane contributes to climate disruption even more dramatically.