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Energy Blog UK homes to be powered by Norwegian hydro

UK homes to be powered by Norwegian hydro

Ian McKenna
by Ian McKenna May 18, 2015
wave power electricity

Last month the UK and Norway signed an agreement to build what will become the world’s longest interconnector from the town of Kvilldal, in southwest Norway, to Blyth, in northeast England.

The document, which was signed at the British Embassy in Oslo by representatives from National Grid, the power grid operator in Great Britain, and Statnett, the state-owned Norwegian business electricity operator, represents another addition to the long history of trade between the two countries, dating back at least to the Viking era.

The giant 450-mile subsea cable, called the NSN Link, should be completed by 2021 and will jointly cost the countries $2.15 billion. A Stattnett press release stated that the cable will “connect the two countries’ electricity markets directly for the first time.” The cable will allow Norway to provide the UK with 1.4 gigawatts of energy, roughly equal to 14 percent of British household consumption. The cable is a two-way connection however, meaning that although Britain will mostly be receiving from Norway, they can also send electricity back the other way when their production exceeds demand.

The interconnector’s promotion of green energy was also hailed by the two countries. Norway produces 96 percent of its commercial electricity using hydropower, a renewable energy source. The other four percent comes from thermal and wind production.

Thanks to its rushing rivers and jagged mountains, the landscape of Norway is ideal for hydropower development. Climate change is also having a positive effect on Norway’s hydropower generation.

Unlike places such as California, which are facing extreme drought, Norway is get more rain, and therefore more powerful rivers.

Although it may seem as if hydropower has found its perfect home in Norway, there is one issue that remains: the local population is often opposed to the damming of their rivers and flooding of their valleys in order to power homes and industries in other countries.

A major controversy took place in the late 70s and early 80s surrounding this issue. A proposed hydropower project in the Norwegian Arctic, announced by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, planned to build a dam and reservoir along the Alta River in Finnmark.

However, this would result in the upstream village of Mazé, belonging to the indigenous Sami people, being completely flooded. Mass protests, hunger strikes, arrests and court battles followed. The government of Norway even considered using 200 soldiers against the demonstrators if things go out of control, which serves as an indication of just how determined they were to have the project completed.

By 1982, despite the protests, the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that the government could pursue their plans to build the dam. However, the Sami people did manage to alter the plans to avoid the flooding of their village.

Some people have also argued that the outcry against the dam raised the profile of the Sami people and culminated in increased recognition of their rights with the 2005 Finnmark Act. Gregg Bucken-Knapp, a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg, argues that the Norwegian government still has a monopoly over the Sami people and cannot really be stopped in its quest to develop the Finnmark region.

Norway: Europe’s green energy generator?

Academic Anne Therese Gullberg dubbed Norway Europe’s “green battery” in an article she wrote in Energy Policy and, with the ongoing construction of interconnectors between the country and it’s neighbours, it would seem she was correct. An interconnector between Norway and the Netherlands already exists and a similar line is planned from Tonstad in southwest Norway to Wilster in northwest Germany. According to the German energy grid operator Tennet, the Nordlink cable between the two countries is “a cornerstone of the realisation of the energy transition in Germany.” Thanks to a European Union directive towards more sustainable energy sources, hydropower production in Norway is on the increase. From now until 2020 hydropower production is predicted to increase 12 percent each year due to upgrades on existing plants and the construction of new ones.

For countries that are too far away to be connected by an interconnector, Norway has instead exported its expertise and funding to projects in South America and Asia. Many hydropower plants in Turkey, Wales, Germany, Finland and Sweden are also owned by Statkraft, Norway’s top hydroelectric power company. Turkey itself is also one of the fastest growing electricity markets in Europe, and hydropower plants are springing up all across the country.

However, despite being the biggest donor to the Amazon Fund, Norwegian companies have also invested in controversial plans to develop hydropower plants in Brazil, providing energy for aluminium smelting. Despite ceasing their plans to develop on the Sami land, the country is now investing in the destruction of fragile environments in other areas of the world. Nonetheless, progress on responsible dam construction is being made, with a coalition from Malaysia, where 12 dams are planned in the state of Sarawak on Borneo, travelling to the Alta Dam to build links with the indigenous Norwegian population. Together they hope to learn how to negotiate effectively with the state on potentially invasive hydropower projects.

The conclusion that can be drawn from Norway’s hydropower exploits is that although the process creates far less emissions than traditional fossil fuels, it cannot be accurately called environmentally friendly. Construction of plants can cause damage to indigenous populations, usually the least able to adapt to sudden changes or challenge the state for their rights, by forcing them from their homes and villages. Habitats of local flora and fauna are also threatened as water levels, quality, and geography are also dramatically altered. In probably the most extreme case, the Three Gorges Dam in China is so large that it has altered the earth’s gravitational field, and caused crustal deformation changes in the region.

The future of Arctic hydropower and interconnectors

When it comes to Hydropower, a large part of the Artic seems incredibly well suited. Although Russia and Canada have the most powerful plants, by far the largest number belong to Norway, so it is not surprising that the country produces the world’s leading experts in the area. According to these experts, the main issues surrounding hydroelectricity production in the Artic is the harsh climate and the difficulty of transporting electricity over such large distances. Whereas oil can be put into barrels and gas into tankers, storing and transporting electricity is a far more complex process. This is why interconnectors are preferable, although energy-intensive products like aluminium that can be more easily shipped are also used.

In the parts of the Artic that are closer to the large markets, interconnectors are the most viable solution. As well as Norway, Iceland is the most obvious candidate for sending Artic electricity to more southern locations via interconnectors. Plans have been drawn up to create a giant interconnector, IceLink, between Iceland and Britain, but the sheer size and cost of the project has inhibited its implementation.

Not only that, but hydropower is a controversial topic in Iceland, which many of the local inhabitants unhappy with the large amount of aluminium smelting now taking place on their island. Although it might be easy to tout the benefits of hydropower when it isn’t generated in your neighbourhood, the cost for the environment and population where it is generated need to be taken into account before considering hydropower as truly a renewable resource.