Geothermal energy gains esteem in Iceland

 By Sharon Fisher

Located as it is on the “Ring of Fire,” where the meeting of tectonic plates creates volcanoes, Iceland has long had a history of using this power in ways ranging from bathing in hot springs to baking bread in the hot ground. Even the word “geyser” itself comes from the Icelandic word Geysir, or “to gush.” Now, Iceland is an example to the world of how to harness geothermal energy…

Like many other parts of the world, Iceland relied on coal for heating and electricity; due to the cost and environmental impact, the country switched first to hydropower and then added geothermal energy. At this point, 25 percent of the country’s electrical production comes from geothermal energy, according to Natural Energy Authority of Iceland (NEA). Wells are drilled up to 2000 meters deep in the earth to tap into geothermally heated water and steam at 300 Celsius, according to ON Power, the country’s electrical utility. (ON Power offers tours of the utility at their Geothermal Exhibition.)
The combination of geothermal and hydropower has made electricity so economical that energy-hungry industries such as aluminum smelting have moved manufacturing to Iceland. The low cost of electricity made it worthwhile to ship the bauxite ore needed to make aluminum there. “Between 1990 and 2014, Iceland’s geothermal electricity production increased 1,700 percent, while the population grew only 25 percent,” writes Justin Worland in Time. As much as 70 percent of Iceland’s electricity generation has been used for aluminum production, according to the NEA.
Iceland is also home to a number of other industries that are heavy users of electricity, ranging from data centers (especially since the lower temperatures make them less expensive to cool) to bitcoin mining – up to 100 megawatts by the end of the year, according to Bloomberg. The country might even end up supplying places like the United Kingdom with electricity, Worland writes.
It’s not just the energy itself that could be exported, but also the expertise of Icelandic geothermal specialists, who have traveled as far as China to help other countries jump-start their geothermal energy production. Iceland is also helping expand geothermal generation in the countries surrounding it in Europe.

The Hellisheidarvirkjun geothermal power plant, near the Hengill volcano, east of Reykjavik (Reuters)

Heating houses and more

In addition to using geothermal power to generate electricity, Icelanders have been using it to heat their houses since 1930 . In fact, 43 percent of the country’s geothermal energy was used for that purpose, compared with 40 percent in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the NEA. Today, 90 percent of Icelandic homes are heated with geothermal energy. Heating houses is also an efficient use for geothermal water that isn’t hot enough to be used to generate electricity.
Other uses for geothermal energy in Iceland include fish farming (5 percent), swimming pools and snow melting (4 percent each), and greenhouses and industry (2 percent each), according to the NEA. The country also hopes to have an all-electric car fleet by 2030.

Going deeper

Now, Iceland is going even further, with its Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP). The project involves drilling as much as 4500 meters into the earth to reach areas with higher temperatures, which can generate even more energy.
“It is considered possible to produce up to 8.3 percent of the total world electricity with geothermal resources, supplying 17 percent of the world population,” the World Energy Council wrote in its 2013 report, World Energy Report: Geothermal. “Thirty-nine countries (located mostly in Africa, Central/South America and the Pacific) can potentially produce 100 percent of their electricity using geothermal resources.”
To be sure, geothermal energy can be limited in the sense that it can only be used in areas of geothermic activity. But where this resource is available, it provides a low-cost, sustainable energy source. Little Iceland shows us the way.

READ MORE: Taming a monster by Robin Wylie

about the author
Sharon Fisher