Fieldwork Blogging from Iceland

Dear Aliens,

I’ve landed safely in Iceland, where I’ll be carrying out the second phase of my fieldwork as part of the Alien Energy research project.

Hveragerði, my home over the next few months, is a small town 50kms south east of Reykjavik. Translated variably as hotspring town/garden/corral, it developed in the early part of the 1900’s around its abundant supply of geothermal water and steam. It quickly became the greenhouse capital of Iceland producing cucumbers, tomatoes, red peppers and flowers, and at one point even experimented with the production of bananas (ever head of an Icelandic banana?). Also foundational to the town was a group of artists who left Reykjavik during the 1930’s housing crisis and settled here for the free heat that came with the small houses, along with the awe inspiring tectonic landscape that the town is nestled within. Today it has over 2,000 residents, boasts an ice cream factory (driven by geothermal heat), along with one of Iceland’s largest retirement homes (again driven by cheap heating) and a rehabilitation clinic founded along the principles of the ‘healing earth’ (more on that at a later time).

So why am I here?

Hveragerði sits in the Hengill volcanic system, which is also home to Hellisheiði, the world’s second largest geothermal power plant. On my first phase of fieldwork, from September 2013 to January 2014, I spent time amongst the geoscientists at Reykjavik Energy (the operators of Hellisheiði and owned by the municipality of Reykjavik) and learned about the production of geothermal energy, a vastly complex endeavour that lies at the intersection of a range of scientific disciplines and practices (geology, volcanology, geochemistry, geophysics and engineering). Since expanding its geothermal energy base after the oil crisis of the 70’s (today, Iceland’s energy matrix is 86% ‘renewable’, split 66% geothermal and 20% hydro electric), the country has evolved into one of the world’s leading knowledge hubs for geothermal energy. Boasting a 100% renewable electricity supply and the world’s biggest consumption of electricity per capita (by a factor of two – as we shall see, Iceland is a weird and wonderful place for lists of OECD toping per capita firsts), energy is a topic of much ‘heated’ discussion.

The ‘lure of abundance’ would be one way to describe it. Harnessing the tectonic earth and glacial landscapes in a comparably clean, green renewable fashion is an enticing prospect, especially for a country with little other than fish and tourists. Although hydroelectric power is the more dominant mode of electricity generation in Iceland, a mega project in the east of the country circa 2008 created a wellspring of resistance revolving around both environmental and economic issues, and as such geothermal is being looked to as a possible way forward.

The Hellisheiði power plant was conceived and constructed in the 2000’s (operationalized in 2008), a period in which Iceland was attempting to become the financial mecca of the North, and which, as most will know, ended badly.
Debt appreciation was exorbitant after the currency tanked, but in the hay days, foreign currency loans from the markets were easy to come by and difficult to resist. Hellisheiði took advantage of this setup and was up and running and ready to produce 303mw of electricity in a geological jiffy, all for the provision of an aluminium smelter in the west of the country (of course, back to this one later!).

But little is known of effects of geothermal power production when it is scaled up to a level not previously imaginable. Up and running for 6 years now, the plant, in order to comply with environmental protection laws, is re-injecting the geothermal waste water back into the volcanic fractures, a process not hugely dissimilar to fracking. The net result of this ‘experiment’ is the proliferation of what geologists call ‘induced seismicity’, experienced in Hveragerði as earthquakes.

So, again, why am I here? Well, energy production always occurs somewhere, someplace, close to some people, and Hveragerði is such a place. It lives with the energies of the earth, taking up its bounty (greenhouses, rehab clinics, green tourists) and living with its risks (earthquakes, induced seismicity, sulfur pollution).

As a very distinct volcanic island, the earth has played an inordinately active role in Iceland’s history, culture and society. I am constantly reminded of the inseparability of the fiery earth from socio-cultural life, whether it be volcanic eruptions decimating populations and changing rural settlements and agricultural practices throughout the centuries, or stories of rock people and elf folk who populate these craggy and mysterious places. Renewable energy is a more recent manifestation of this ‘earthy relationship’ and is articulated through the promises of green innovations and resisted through the rhetoric of economic justice (or the lack thereof) and environmental concerns. The earth in Iceland is unruly, its forces are potent, and its bounties are plentiful. But it is also deeply embedded in ways of living and modes of telling stories, and I hope to be able to bring you some of these stories along the way. I will try to link geothermal energy, as a form of collaborative earth action, into a broader frame of previous and ongoing earth issues, volcanic outbreaks, earth mythology, (rock people and elf folk) etc. In positioning energy as part of this trajectory, I hope to open up a narrative frame with a broader than usual arc, one that takes the enfolding of the earth with capital seriously. So in many ways this feels like a story of the anthropocene, as free flowing capital intersects with techno-scientific knowledge and the exuberance of a small island nation. However, I will try to tease out the concept a little, not only pushing the neologism beyond geological terrains, but through them, as I examine the ways in which the dystopic (earthquakes) and utopic (green imaginaries) work up and against one another.

But again, back to Hveragerði. The town has experienced many earthquakes over the years, but a particularly large one in 2008 (6 Richter) has stepped up the levels of anxiety associated with living in a tectonically active area. The previous quakes are described as being more local, and thereby more knowable and manageable, but the one from 2008 brought with it a sense of earthquake as ‘other’ and rattled the town accordingly. Wedded to this sense of otherness are the multiple small earthquakes being triggered by induced seismicity, something that the town is finding difficult to live with. As geothermal scales up for aluminium production, so do many other forms of action and emotion.

There are many questions to think about while I am here over the next few months, but in a broad sense I will be trying to enquire into how it is that the people of the town ‘get along’ with the energies of the earth in an everyday sense.

See you next time!

Photo Archive from Iceland Workshop

We have just created a photo archive from the Alien Energy Iceland Storytelling Workshop, held in October 2013. It was an incredibly insightful and fascinating few days. Thanks to our excellent advisory board, and storytellers, for so much inspiration. Click on the image to see the slide show.