Iceland Blends Renewable Energy into the Landscape

Icelandic landscape / Landsvirkjun

Iceland, a land of glaciers and volcanos found directly over the Mid-Atlantic ridge, is entirely powered by renewable energy. More than 70 percent of the country’s energy comes from hydro power, while the rest is from geothermal sources — the incredible heat found just below the surface caused by red-hot subterranean lava fields. As the millions of tourists who visit each year cause the country’s power needs to grow, Iceland is expanding its geothermal systems. In the face of intense public protests that these systems are marring the stunning landscape — not to mention the usual Not-In-My-Backyard (NIBMY) complaints — Landsvirkjun, the national power company of Iceland, created a new landscape policy designed to create a more harmonious relationship between land and energy. And landscape architect Björk Guðmundsdóttir took the initiative to make this all happen.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Guðmundsdóttir explained that when she started her multi-year effort, there wasn’t a single design guideline for renewable energy projects. Her task was to create a new national landscape policy for these systems, while being the only women — and landscape architect — working with a team of all-male engineers.

Her first step was to understand the geothermal energy system development process, the legal frameworks that shape energy production, and the broader energy policies. One important high-level Icelandic policy guided her work: energy systems “should operate in harmony with the landscape.”

She spent time finding the gaps in the renewable power plant operations that were “open to the influence of design.” Establishing a working group within Landsvirkjun, she ended up creating a process that brings design into every stage of the renewable energy project development process — from the early environmental and visual impact assessments to the design concept, detailed landscape plans, and maintenance approach.

Guðmundsdóttir said creating design guidelines required thinking through all the ways how development touches the landscape. For example, “do you require buildings to be white so they blend in with the snow that covers Iceland for much of the year? Or instead should they be a neutral color so they blend with the summer landscape, when there are the most numbers of tourists?”

Landsvirkjun eventually settled on a series of design guidelines — seemingly simple but with a positive impact on new projects — that also create new roles for landscape architects. Guidelines include: create projects in harmony with their surrounding landscape, including careful site selection to minimize impact and roads that follow the topography. Minimize cut and fills. Re-vegetate, re-forest, and restore the landscape. Re-use all natural surface materials. Orient pipelines, which must be on the surface due to the extreme heat found in some places just a few feet below the surface, so they blend in as much as possible. And design every power-related building to be multi-use.

Aðalheiður Atladóttir, with A2F Architects, showed how the new landscape policy is shaping their work on a geothermal power station — Hagonguvirkjun, near Hagongulon Lake in the center of the country — and associated worker housing and hotel.

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

A2F created a power plant with a warm, inviting restaurant and visitor center — its entire form mimics the glacier and mountain ranges in the background.

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

And nearby there is a building that is both housing for the plant workers and a hotel that features a spa and greenhouse — a “nice place to chill.” The team will build gabion walls from stones collected nearby, so the “building looks like it grew out of the landscape.”

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects
Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

To bring in some fresh thinking and expand the conversation with her engineer colleagues, Guðmundsdóttir partnered with SUNY Syracuse landscape architecture professor Matthew Potteiger and his graduate students, who spent a semester studying in Iceland. The Americans completed a two-week planning and conceptual design charette with Landvirkjun in the very-hot landscapes of Krafta in northern Iceland, where both the first geothermal power plants and the newest are found. The goal was to create a new interpretation system for a geothermal power plant for Icelanders and tourists.

Potteiger said interpreting the “landscape of geothermal power” was challenging because the unique geophysical forces at work under the ground and the surface engineering systems are equally enigmatic. Plus, there are sheep, who strangely only hang out in groups of three, randomly grazing amid all the “industrial sublime.”

Exploring the site and all its sensory experiences, Potteiger and his students proposed some inventive, small ways design can enhance the visitor experience. For example, plumes from the geothermal vents can be used to create “steam paths that act as a wayfinding device.” Once a geothermal well has gone cold and its equipment is removed, the original soil, stones, and vegetation could be returned to the site, which would create a marker revealed through stages of vegetative growth. And sheep, which are “heat-seeking devices who love to cuddle in winter,” could be given designed social spaces, protective structures along pipelines, so they can cuddle in style.

One thought on “Iceland Blends Renewable Energy into the Landscape

  1. Noel Vernon 10/25/2018 / 10:25 am

    Great post, Jared, in so many ways! Women in LA working with (male) engineers, Icelanders living in harmony with the landscape, Matt Potteiger and students — and cozy sheep (four-legged character defining landscape features). What’s not to love? Thanks!!!

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