Some Icelanders cool to a local hydro project backed by Ross Beaty’s Alterra Power

Some Icelanders are cool to a local hydro project backed by Ross Beaty's Alterra Power

A plan to harness hydro energy in the Icelandic wilderness has drawn the B.C. company behind it into a Site C–like debate overseas

There are few places more remote than Árneshrep­­pur. Nestled in Iceland’s Westfjords region, encircled by mountain peaks that undulate like the ocean below, it’s the nation’s least-populated county, with just 30 year-round residents.

Árneshreppur is facing extinction. Weak transportation links, an unreliable power grid and an economy based on small-scale fishing and agriculture have triggered an exodus of young people. Now a proposed 55-megawatt hydroelectric project, backed by Vancouver-based Alterra Power Corp., threatens to divide neighbours whose families have lived together for centuries—and dry up waterfalls that have flowed to the sea for longer still.

“There is a very heated discourse on the matter,” says opponent Elín Agla, the local harbourmaster and mother of one of the county’s two school-age children. She lives above the county council office, where a development permit for the Hvalá plant was put to a vote in October.

This conflict mirrors the struggle that often follows when a major energy project like the Site C dam lands on the agenda in B.C. Alterra Power and its founder, Ross Beaty, have faced Icelandic ire before. Beaty’s acquisition in 2009 of domestic power producer HS Orka hf, which has a majority stake in the hydro project, sparked a national outcry led by singer Björk. The foreign-ownership slur crops up anytime HS Orka makes a move in Iceland.

Beaty, who had no comment, made his fortune in mining as founder of Vancouver-headquartered Pan American Silver Corp. until launching nearly a decade ago what is now Alterra. His growing renewable energy empire, which includes wind and run-of-river projects in B.C., a solar power operation in Ontario and geothermal plants in Iceland and Nevada, is rooted in the notion that Western society must shift to a no-growth way of life.

For Agla, it’s ironic that a company guided by this ethic will forever change the wilderness around the village she loves. HS Orka CEO Asgeir Margeirsson insists that much of the Hvalá project, which calls for the construction of dams, will be built underground, and that Árneshreppur won’t suffer the devastating environmental effects claimed by critics. The plant would help modernize the region and revamp its industry, including a fledgling salmon farming sector, he adds.

Margeirsson concedes that Hvalá will produce more electricity than the area needs now, but he says the rest will flow into the national grid. “What is bad about producing electricity that goes to other parts of Iceland?” he asks. “Most parts of Iceland import electricity from somewhere else in the country.”

At press time, Árneshreppur council was expected to vote narrowly in favour of Hvalá. Agla believes Beaty is the only person who can stop it. Although she considered making a personal appeal to him at his Bowen Island home when she visited B.C. last summer, there’s still an ocean between them.