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

BC Business Magazine - - Contents - By Scott Neufeld

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

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.

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