Renewable Energy Pathways in Iceland

Sociotechnical and Nature Imaginaries at the Crossroads

Lea Rekow

Geothermal and hydroelectric energy are, for the most part, considered ‘green’ or ‘renewable’ and are responsible for Iceland’s successful transition away from fossil fuels. Yet these energy pathways are influenced by complex interactions that need to be better understood, both within the context of Iceland, and as they are perceived globally. To more fully comprehend these energy trajectories, it is necessary to unpack how the economic, political social, technical, geographical, and natural interweave to work together, and how they generate dissidence and impacts on multiple levels.

Karahnjukar dam, Iceland. Photo by Chris Hess (image cropped), 2008. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

‘Sociotechnical imaginaries’ articulate geothermal and hydroelectric energy futures through market-driven narratives, economic ideologies, and specific infrastructures (hard and soft). In contrast, ‘nature imaginaries’ express specific collective moral visions that underlie energy discourses and actions relating to human/nature relations. In both types of imaginaries nature plays an active role. Within geothermal and hydroelectric energy frameworks, sociotechnical and nature imaginaries entwine. They are, at times, expressed through ideological unification, and at other times stand in diametric opposition to one another.

Over the last several decades, Iceland’s geothermal and hydroelectric energy transition, supported by an array of policy instruments, has proceeded at full speed. As the world turns towards what is being packaged and sold as a low-carbon future, Iceland is often regarded as a superlative example of what a ‘green’ energy transition might look like. Some nation states now look to the country to learn how to advance their own potential in these energy arenas, whereas energy-intensive industries look to Iceland to supply them with the inexpensive power they need to be profitable. In many instances, however, these energy projects are moved forward despite staunch opposition from those who are concerned with environmental protections and the sustainable functioning of nonhuman nature.

A more robust understanding of the complexities of achieving a more environmentally responsible movement for geothermal and hydroelectric energy might be gained by identifying wayfinders, obstacles, and conflicts as they as they play out in Iceland. The following primer texts provide basic overviews of these energyscapes in general, and through specific case studies, imply how sociotechnical and nature imaginaries bind together to lead to the establishment of large-scale energy projects, while simultaneously creating binary opposition to them.


Karl Benediktsson, Conflicting imaginaries in the energy transition? Nature and renewable energy in Iceland

Mary Albert, Cultural Survival and Energy Pathways – a story from the top of the world

Benjamin K.Sovacool, The “whole systems” energy sustainability of digitalization: Humanizing the community risks and benefits of Nordic datacenter development.

Karl Benediktsson, Power without politics? Nature, landscape and renewable energy in Iceland


HYDROPOWER IN ICELAND: A Review of the Kárahnjúkar Project