The smallest aluminium smelter in Iceland uses 50% more electricity than all of Iceland’s households and businesses combined, while contributing very little to the country’s GDP.
Heavy industry has often been touted by Icelandic conservatives as a cash cow: foreign companies can provide the country with jobs, while utilising Iceland’s green energy to produce aluminium in a cleaner fashion.
While the myth of the “green smelter” has been definitively put to rest, aluminium is still billed by some as being good for the economy.
However, Vilhjálmur Þorsteinsson – the chair of a study group assembled by the Ministry of Industry that studies Iceland’s energy use – has come to some damning conclusions about smelters in Iceland.
Iceland’s three aluminium smelters – Alcoa in Reyðarfjörður, Norðurál in Grundartangi, and Alcan in Straumsvík – consume approximately 13 terawatt hours of electricity. The entire capacity of Iceland’s electrical output is 17 terawatt hours. Furthermore, Straumsvík – the smallest smelter in the country – uses 3.6 terawatt hours. The combined total energy consumption of every home and business in Iceland (apart from the smelters) equals only 2.3 terawatt hours.
At the same time, even the best estimates of what smelters contribute to the economy only put them in the neighbourhood of contributing to 5% of the GDP. Tourism accounts for about the same percentage of the GDP while using far less of the power grid. Meanwhile, Iceland’s service sector accounts for 69.9% of its GDP, and fishing accounts for 12%.