Geothermal pipes wind across the Icelandic landscape.

Country focus: Iceland for engineers

We take a look at the opportunities for engineers in Iceland: what skills employers are looking for and what kinds of engineering projects are planned or currently underway.

At roughly the size of Scotland and Wales combined (103,000 square kilometres) and home to just over 324,000 people, Iceland is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe. Since 2010, the North Atlantic island has been steadily recovering from economic collapse following the global financial crisis. According to Focus Economics, the economy grew by 4 per cent in 2015 and its panellists expect GDP to expand 3.6 per cent in 2016 and 2.8 per cent in 2017. The removal this year of capital controls that were imposed during the crisis to help stabilise the banking system are expected to have a positive impact on growth, says the business intelligence firm, as it “paves the way” to return to international financial markets.

Alongside the established industries of fishing, fish processing, aluminium and ferrosilicon production, Iceland hopes a number of burgeoning high-tech and clean-tech sectors will help to drive the growth. It also benefits from a strategic location, being positioned midway between North America and Europe.

The country’s wealth of natural resources means roughly 70 per cent of its energy comes from hydro-power and 30 per cent from geothermal, so it boasts an entirely renewable energy system. What’s more, only a third of its energy potential has been harnessed. The organisation Invest in Iceland hopes its ability to offer organisations a low carbon footprint and low, more stable energy costs (it isn’t dependent on the oil and gas commodity markets), will continue to drive growth in a number of diverse sectors from life sciences and the chemical industry to greenhouse production and data aggregation, processing and storage.

Indeed, it is touted as a hotspot for energy-hungry data centres. There is an irony in such a label given it is the country’s temperate climate and ability to offer year-round ambient cooling that makes it so attractive. Verne Global, which develops 100 per cent renewable data centres based on sustainable green power, set up a 44 acre site on the former NATO base in Keflavik on the south-west of the island several years ago and describes itself as part of the “rapidly growing data centre community and ecosystem”.

“We significantly reduce the IT power cost of our customers and provide them with hugely stable and predictable pricing for up to 20 years and this is very much a facet of Icelandic power,” says Dominic Ward, Vice President of Corporate and Business Development at Verne Global, adding that the temperature also permits “free cooling” for 365 days a year.

“There is an ongoing trend for our customers to move their compute to optimised locations such as our campus in Iceland and it is a trend that will continue for a long time to come as the amount of compute grows at an exponential rate for the next ten years and beyond.”

While the renewable energy available is helping to spawn new sectors, it is of course a huge industry in itself on the island and wind turbines are joining the hydro and geothermal mix. Encouraging more organisations to come to the country is, in effect, a means of exporting this power but there is potentially a more direct method on the table: IceLink, a 1,000km long interconnecter power line between the UK and Iceland.

The idea was first suggested 60 years ago and its feasibility assessed a number of times over the years. In 2013, the national power company Landsvirkjun, Landsnet, which owns and operates major electricity transmission lines in Iceland, and National Grid, formed a partnership to further explore the technical and economic feasibility.

More recently, at the end of 2015, the UK and Iceland prime ministers set up a task force to evaluate the project and results are expected soon. Further exploration will be required though and it could be 2027 before the interconnector is able to deliver energy to the UK if it does go ahead. The potential impact on Iceland’s energy industry would be huge and, in an overview of IceLink, Landsvirkjun reports that more onshore wind and geothermal plants would be set up.

Michael Moggeridge, technical director of geothermal resources and energy at the international engineering consultancy Mannvit, headquartered in Kópavogur, south of Reykjavik, explains that it wouldn’t just be about the UK getting energy from Iceland but also vice versa.

“When the wind blows hard, we can send electric to Iceland and they can store it in their hydro projects and effectively act as a battery for us,” he says, adding: “Iceland has more than enough energy for what they need at the moment but if the interconnector went ahead, they’d need to build a lot more power generation so there could be massive opportunities.”

Much like its natural resources, Iceland also has an abundance of engineers. While this has a lot to do with its energy infrastructure and many of the complex projects required over the years to build it, the engineering needs of its other industries such as aluminium as well as fish processing have also played a part.

“The engineering talent required for fishing and processing on a large scale is significant,” points out Ward. “Iceland has an extremely well-educated and IT literate population and all of these factors have led to an exceptional talent pool that is now being used for more modern, high-tech environments.”

According to the Global Competitiveness Report 2014-15, published by the World Economic Forum, Iceland’s main strengths rank extremely highly in technological readiness, higher education and training. Meanwhile, a report by Reykjavik University, Mapping of Human Resources for Data Centres, found that the country was able to find the engineering and IT skills required locally to support the growing sector.

Moggeridge explains that Icelandic engineers provide technical expertise and back-up for Mannvit’s projects in the UK.

“We use their specialist skills in mechanical and electrical engineering for a lot of renewable heat projects.”

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