Icelandic winter entices for many reasons. There are ice caves, snowy mountains and long, dark nights full of stars and Aurora. But there is another category of beauty and intrigue with a unique premise: power stations.
Iceland’s iconic geology is a source of breathtaking vistas; but it’s also what fuels the whole country. There are a number of interesting – even pretty – power plants within a short distance from Reykjavík. We found that linking them together into a day trip was the ideal way to get a sense of Iceland’s power development, from an emerging economy after the Second World War, to its current position at the forefront of cutting-edge technology.
Take the high road
First stop was Nesjavellir, the second-largest geothermal power plant in Iceland. During the summer months Nesjavallavegur mountain pass is open and accessible to most vehicles, and makes for a spectacular drive to the station. But in winter the road is closed and inadvisable to all but high clearance, 4WD vehicles and experienced drivers.
Luckily I had both at my disposal, and we made it through, despite a couple of heart-racing moments when the snow drifts were a little higher than I was comfortable with. We were rewarded by a postcard-perfect view of glistening Þingvellir with steam clouds rising from Nesjavellir below.
Water, water everywhere
From there it was only a short drive to Ljósafoss. The oldest hydropower station in the Sogið river, it was built in 1937 to meet the growing demand for power from Reykjavík, whose population was booming at the time. Turns out Icelanders have been harnessing the power of the natural landscape long before it was cool.
Ljósafoss hosts a small and engaging visitor centre with lots of fun interactive exhibits for wee ones. The staff were delighted to show us around and patiently tolerated my attempts to pronounce things in Icelandic.
With the sun as high as it was going to get on this short winter’s day, it was time for a hike. In keeping with our steam-powered theme, the obvious spot was Hveragerði. Famous for its geothermal activity, the river Varmá runs through and heats the many greenhouses dotting the landscape.
We stopped at Almar Bakari to fuel up on their lava-bread sandwiches, before setting off up Reykjadalur valley towards the hot river, admiring the juxtaposition of snow and steam. Parts of the path are steep and require good boots, in particular in winter where sneaky ice patches can be your literal downfall.
The river is warm year round and plenty of folk were enjoying the bath-like temperatures. As tempting as it was to join them, the sky was already tinged with pink and we had one more stop to make. Somewhat reluctantly, we headed back.
A bright future
Our last destination was Hellisheiði Power Plant. On the main road just outside of the city (if you’ve ever driven Route 1 south from Reykjavík, you’ve passed it), many people don’t realise what a fascinating place this is and miss the opportunity to visit. Not only is Hellisheiði the biggest geothermal power plant in Iceland, it’s the third-largest in the world, creating 303 MW of electricity.
Wandering through the visitor centre, we took the opportunity to see the internal workings of the plant from the viewing platform and learned about how the site is now involved in new carbon capture and fixing technologies. This involves a huge structure that collects carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the largest of its kind in the world so far. Dwarfed by the huge fans whirring above us, I felt a huge sense of relief and gratitude for the existence of this machine, steadfastly consuming the harm we commit to the environment, and storing it safely away.
We finished our trip as night was falling, and as streams of car headlights flashed past us in the dark, I was reminded of how dependent we all are on these power plants and the energy they create, in almost every aspect of our lives. It was reassuring to know that green energy consumption is possible and practical, and that Iceland is leading the way in showing how achievable it is.
Travel distance from Reykjavík: 130km
Car provided by: Go Car Rental Iceland
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