Day 33: It’s bigger on the inside

I have a confession to make: on my first road trip back in June, while I was looking for Háifoss (the waterfall I wrote about here), I drove past a modest-looking country road and a placid little lake without realizing their economic importance or their place in Icelandic history.

It doesn't look more impressive even when you see it several times.
Image credit: Google.

Actually, I drove past them several times.  I was lost.

When I think of hydroelectric power, the image that comes to my mind is usually Hoover Dam: a gigantic concrete horseshoe holding back a vast expanse of water.  Perhaps it’s because I lived for so long in southern Nevada and had to pass over or around the dam every time I drove from Las Vegas to Phoenix, which I did on a more or less annual basis.

It demands your attention, and gets it.
It demands your attention, and gets it.  Image credit: Wikimedia.

Búrfellsvirkjun — the Búrfell power station — looks nothing like Hoover Dam.  What you see is a rather simple concrete box at the bottom of a hill, overlooking a modest stream that flows down toward the Þjórsá river.  There are no majestic cascades of water crashing down elaborate spillways, no rainbows in the mist; only a bit of turbulence in the stream and a small power substation next to the box hint at what’s going on inside.

Búrfell embodies a remarkable piece of Icelandic economic history.  Iceland was long a poor country, mostly reliant on a fishing industry that was successful but limited in scope.  The country’s position in the North Atlantic, astride the sortie routes of the Soviet navy, made it a key part of NATO’s defensive strategy: to fight a war in Europe, the Soviets would need to seal off the Atlantic, and to do that, they would have to get past Iceland.  The American air base at Keflavik was meant to keep that from happening.  The base was a significant source of revenue for Iceland throughout the Cold War, but it did essentially nothing to diversify or to grow Iceland’s economy.

Iceland had no heavy industries, and probably never would, unless it first developed the infrastructure to support them.  That meant generating electricity, and that was a challenge.  Iceland has no reserves of oil or natural gas.  The island is only a few tens of millions of years old, and because it was formed by volcanic action and not the gradual uplift of ancient sea beds, there are no pockets of fossil fuels underneath Iceland’s soil and rocks, waiting to be discovered.*

Ágúst explains Iceland's geologic history.
Ágúst explains Iceland’s geologic history.

No oil-powered industries are possible here without buying the oil somewhere else and shipping it to the top of the world.  That additional cost imposes barriers to growth.

But as Landsvirkjun, the Icelandic national power company, often asks:

Actually a pretty good question.
Actually a pretty good question.

And so Icelanders turned to hydroelectric power.

Landsvirkjun started construction on Búrfell in 1965 in order to create the electrical infrastructure needed to attract new industries, gambling that a major power project would kickstart the Icelandic economy.  Rather than build a massive edifice like Hoover Dam to hold back the waters, Icelanders relied heavily on existing terrain.  They diverted part of the flow of the Þjórsá river, the longest in Iceland, to create the “placid little lake” I drove by in June.  The lake — actually, the Bjarnalón reservoir — is held in place in a valley next to a small mountain that takes the place of the giant concrete dam.

Image credit: Google.
Image credit: Google.

A mile-long tunnel blasted through the mountain rock connects the reservoir to the power station, that plain concrete box at the end of the quiet country road.  You can’t see it, but up to 300 cubic meters of water, roughly 80 thousand gallons, flows through the tunnel under the mountain and into the power station every second, after first dropping about 115 meters in its passage through the tunnel from Bjarnalón reservoir.

A slightly more conventional structure.  At Búrfellsvirkjun, a mountain takes the pace of the concrete dam.
A slightly more conventional hydroelectric structure. At Búrfellsvirkjun, a small mountain takes the place of the concrete dam.  Image credit: Wikimedia.

No wonder there’s turbulence as the water emerges from the station.  There’s a lot of energy in that flow.

Under the power station, the water passes through six Francis turbines.  These turbines are versatile and very good at what they do.  More than 90% of the energy in the flowing water can be converted to electrical power using Francis turbines, and because they’re so efficient you find them all over the world — including Hoover Dam.

At Búrfell, the turbines produce electricity by spinning the rotors of a half dozen Toshiba-built generators.  When the station was finished after the better part of a decade, these generators produced a total of 210 megawatts (MW) of electrical power; an upgrade in the late 1990s increased their output to 270 MW.  There are plans under discussion to add another hundred megawatts, but no construction has actually begun.

Just as the Icelanders planned, the successful completion of the Búrfell power station made it possible to bring in heavy industry and to diversify and expand the Icelandic economy.  Today, almost all the power plant’s output is consumed by a large aluminum refining facility at Straumsvík in southwest Iceland.  Located near Hafnarfjörður, the plant is easily visible from the road leading from the airport to the capital.

Aluminum refinery, along the road between Keflavik and Reykjavik.  Image credit: HRV Engineering.
Aluminum refinery along the road between Keflavik and Reykjavik. Image credit: HRV Engineering.

Until the completion of a new facility in eastern Iceland in 2007, the Búrfell power station was the largest hydroelectric power producer in Iceland.  It remains an important part of the Icelandic energy infrastructure today … and as the national power company looks to upgrade the plant, it will likely remain so for decades to come.

Cover image credit: Wikimedia

* There may be oil and gas deposits in the seas northeast of Iceland; but given their location, they will not likely be developed anytime soon.

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