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Today we paid a visit to the University of Oslo, which is the Norway’s largest university.  The school boasts four Nobel Prize winning graduates.  We spoke with Professor Nils Roar Saelthun who teaches in the Geosciences Department.  He shared with us lots of great information about Norway’s energy mix and how social issues have played a role in the country’s energy system.

Some background on Norway:

Norway is a country with a population of 4.6 million with a mainland coastline of 25,000 kilometers.  The main exports are gas and oil (Norway is the 3rd largest exporter of oil in the world), subsea petroleum technology and sea products like fish.  Norway’s power is 98% hydro and one of the principal reasons that Norway is the 3rd largest exporter of gas and oil in the world is that the country doesn’t use much at home.

Energy in Norway

Norway has the highest per capita consumption of electricity in the entire world, which is partly due to the fact that most heat in Norway comes from electricity.  As mentioned earlier, 98% of Norway’s electricity comes from hydroelectricity because this is a resource that’s easy to come by in such a wet, mountainous country.  The industrialization of Norway was more or less based on hydropower resources.  The combination of steep terrain and high level of precipitation create for the perfect conditions for hydroelectricity production.  By contract, Denmark is a much flatter country that is much less conducive to hydro.

Norway has a high potential for other renewables like wind and wave, but to date has not invested much in these technologies. Norway has special competencies in high head hydropower systems (greater than 3500 feet), underground hydro installations and water management.

Unlike the United States, Norway has an incredible amount of electricity provides, distribution utilities and production companies and people actually get to choose which utility they buy energy from.  All companies share the same transmission grid, so they have to work together, though they remain separate.

There are a few minor issues with a system based overwhelmingly on hydropower, namely that the whole system depends on an inflow that fluctuates throughout the year.  This fluctuation can make it difficult to have a reliable base load.  Large hydroelectricity is the perfect companion to coal plants, nuclear plants, wind turbines and small hydro projects because of its variability.

Trends in the industry

In recent years there has been significant development of small hydro projects as well as a strengthening of transmission lines, both nationally and internationally.  Additionally, Norwegian electricity is beginning to be a player on the European energy market.

Main issues with hydroelectricity

The main issues with hydro are related to:

  • Nature
  • Atlantic salmon
  • Indigenous peoples (Sami); traditional way of living is being impacted
  • Need for transmission lines

In 1970 there was a countrywide debate when the government was about to allow a hydro company to damn up the largest waterfall in the country to produce electricity.  The hydro facility was eventually built, but not without much discussion.

People used to be worried about the impacts of hydroelectricity on the native Atlantic salmon population, but this is no longer an issue.  Nowadays people are more concerned with aquaculture operations affecting the natural genetics of Atlantic salmon in an adverse way.

The Alta Case

Nils shared with us an interesting case in which hydropower interests were up against the environmentalists and indigenous interest groups.   The hydropower companies wanted to put a hydroelectric dam in the largest canyon in Northern Europe, which is also near a Sami village and the home of one of the best salmon rivers in Norway. 

1968: Plans published for development of the Alta River

1973: Masi community permanently protected against hydropower.

1974: State applies for a permit to develop the area for hydro.

1976: Plan was reviewed

1978: Norwegian parliament grants the license to develop the area.  The final agreement was that it would be one reservoir, one plant and be strictly regulated.

1979: Strong mobilization against the plans, including hunger strikes on the part of the Sami from that area.   There were sit-downs and chain gangs in Alta.

1981: Road construction began and a large demonstration took place that led to 900 people being thrown in jail.

1982: Another demonstration that involved 20,000 people

1984: Work on dam commences

1988: Dam finished

There were strong feelings about the building of this dam for a few reasons:

  • Political Dimension- this was an issue between the centralists and the decentralists
  • Ethical Dimension– Weak (Sami, district), verses Powerful (state, hydro, central administration), Deep Ecology Movement, Civil Disobedience Issue
  • Mythical Dimension- Slogan “la elva leve” (Let the river Live), Sami seem as nature’s children.

Who won?

In the end the hydro project was built.  The salmon still run in this area and the Sami ended up gaining a lot.  They received a new piece of legislation that gave them rights to natural resources and their own parliament.  Today the Sami are one of the strongest forces in the realm of indigenous peoples in the world.

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