The Independent just published an article about the Iceland-UK IceLink interconnector under the headline ‘David Cameron is poised to launch an ambitious project that could see Britain harnessing the power of Iceland’s volcanoes within the next 10 years.‘ The Independent is jumping the gun a bit because Cameron isn’t poised yet. All that’s actually happened is that a UK-Iceland Energy Task Force ‘has been set up to examine the feasibility of the scheme and told to report back in six months’. But still this is as good a time as any to take a brief look at the £4 billion Icelink project:

IceLink details

Landvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, provides the following information on IceLink:

  • The interconnector will be over 1000km long, 800 – 1200MW HVDC transmission link connecting Iceland to GB, and offering bi-directional flows
  • IceLink will deliver a volume of >5TWh flexible renewable electricity per annum
  • We anticipate that the total cost to the UK consumer will be competitive with other domestic low-carbon alternatives
  • IceLink delivers reliable and flexible energy into the GB system at times of thin supply margins
  • IceLink allows energy to flow to Iceland at times of low hydro generation potential, e.g. due to unusually low precipitation levels.

(An intriguing question here is what happens when thin supply margins in UK coincide with periods of low hydro generation in Iceland . One assumes the UK-Iceland Energy Task Force will be looking into this.)

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Iceland’s electricity sector

Figure 1 shows growth in Iceland’s installed capacity and annual generation since 1976 (data from Statistics Iceland):

Figure 1: Iceland’s installed capacity and electricity generation, 1976-2013

In 2013 Iceland generated 18.1TWh of electricity (12.9TWh hydro, 5.2TWh geothermal) from 2,768MW of installed capacity (1,986MW hydro, 665MW geothermal, and 115MW ‘fuel’). Over three-quarters of the 18.1TWh was consumed in Iceland’s aluminum smelters and ferroalloy plants, which are there to take advantage of the cheap hydropower and which are responsible for most of the growth in electricity output. (The upward jump in 2007/08 was caused by the startup of the Alcoa Fjardaál smelter and the 690MW Kárahnjúkar hydro plant which services it.)

Availability of power for export

Interconnectors are supposed to be two-way streets, but in the case of IceLink it seems to be generally accepted that the dominant direction of flow will be from north to south. Can Iceland deliver terawatt-hours a year of electricity to UK after Icelink goes into operation? It certainly could not have done so in 2013; it would have to generate a lot more electricity before it could. Where is it to come from? According to Landvirkjun it will come from ‘the surplus energy in the renewable hydro system that is not currently harnessed due to economical and operational limitations’. I assume they are talking about building more dams because there probably isn’t much surplus energy to be had in the existing hydro system, which in 2013 operated at a capacity factor of 57%, unusually high for hydro. I believe there are also plans to expand geothermal (and even to build wind farms – why on Earth would Iceland build wind farms?) but I can’t find any specifics.

At least Iceland doesn’t have a serious peak load problem. Compared to the sine-wave-shaped demand curves we are used to seeing Iceland’s demand curve is effectively flat, as shown in Figure 2. This is largely a result of the high proportion of baseload generation needed to service the island’s metal refining industry:

Figure 2: Iceland’s electricity demand, March 4-10 2013 (2,260MW is understood to have been peak demand for the year).

Power imports from Iceland

IceLink will have a capacity of only ~1GW – a small fraction of the UK’s ~55GW peak winter demand – but it’s a gigawatt of hydro (with maybe some geothermal thrown in) so it could be the difference between lights on and lights out during a cold, sunless, windless winter evening when no one else in Europe has any power to spare. ~5TWh of annual imports also represents a small fraction of the UK’s ~320TWh annual consumption but could be useful in balancing intermittent renewables generation. So Icelink isn’t a dead loss. As always, however, the question is whether the £4 billion installation cost wouldn’t be better spent on a few gigawatts of new CCGTs or as a down-payment on a nuclear plant. I’ve not had time to look into this but I suspect the CCGTs might win. Another problem is that Icelink isn’t scheduled to be in service until 2024, which is rather a long time to wait.
Finally comes the question of what the Icelanders think of becoming a power exporter. I understand that there’s a certain amount of local opposition to the concept of turning Iceland into a power plant for Western Europe, but plans are on the drawing board:

Figure 3: Proposed interconnectors between Iceland and Western Europe (image credit Askja Energy)

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