Iceland’s Renewable Energy Drive Is Full-Steam Ahead

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of National Geographic Society. Author credit goes to Paul Gipe.

Iceland is famous for its breathtaking scenery, its geysers, its Blue Lagoon—and for using its abundant renewable energy, and especially for tapping the volcanic roots of the island in developing its geothermal resources.

Iceland today generates 100 percent of its electricity with renewables: 75 percent of that from large hydro, and 25 percent from geothermal. Equally significant, Iceland provides 87 percent of its demand for hot water and heat with geothermal energy, primarily through an extensive district heating system.

Architectural feature of the Svartsengi geothermal power plant, Iceland (image via Paul Gipe/National Geographic Society)

Altogether, hydro and geothermal sources meet 81 percent of Iceland’s primary energy requirements for electricity, heat, and transportation. Iceland has profited by using  the low cost of its renewably generated electricity—and  the stable price it represents over the long term—to lure a large aluminum smelting industry to the island.

Geothermal Leader

Despite its economic collapse in 2008, Iceland still has one of the world’s highest standards of living.

The 100,000-square-kilometer island  is geologically active; half of the country lies on the North American tectonic plate, the other half  on the Eurasian plate.

Two-thirds of its 300,000 people live in the capital Reykjavik. Until the extensive development of the island’s hydro and geothermal resources, the country was dependent upon coal and oil for providing transportation, fueling its fishing fleet, and heating its homes. The latter is not something to take lightly in a nation just south of the Arctic Circle. Iceland’s older residents can remember a time when coal smoke, not steam from the island’s famed fumaroles, shrouded the capital.

But within one generation, following the oil crises of the 1970s, Iceland moved almost completely from heating with fossil fuels to geothermal energy.

Iceland is now a leader in geothermal development and exports its technical expertise worldwide. Along with the Philippines and El Salvador, it can boast  the highest penetration of geothermal energy in electricity generation worldwide.

Travelers  through Iceland may know nothing about the country’s geothermal resources, but as their flight arrives atKeflavik International Airport they may look askance at their seatmates. The airport sits near the end of the Reykjanes peninsula, one of the geothermal fields serving the capital. A rotten-egg smell characteristic of hot springs and underground steam fields pervades the air.

Steam plumes rise from fumaroles and vents along the road on the hour drive from the airport to Reykjavik.

Icelanders use geothermal energy both for generating electricity, and for heating. They generate electricity in what is, for all practical purposes, conventional thermal power plants. Instead of burning coal in a boiler to create steam, Icelanders use steam directly from the earth.

Only minutes from the international airport at Keflavik is the Blue Lagoon, a posh spa built on the waste fluids from Svartsengi geothermal power plant.

Originally the Svartsengi site was developed to heat the nearby harbor town of Grindavik after the oil crisis, but geologists found a much greater resource than expected and the plant has steadily grown, now producing 75 MW of electricity from 12 wells. Svartsengi also produces an equivalent amount of thermal fluids for district heating.

HS Orka, the company that operates the plant, pumps the waste geothermal fluids back in into 12 recharge wells, and of course, feeds some of the waste geothermal fluids to the popular Blue Lagoon.

The evaporation pond of the Blue Lagoon has become the pearl of Iceland, receiving some 500,000 visitors per year.

What is most striking to an American visitor is the appearance of the plants.

Iceland takes architecture seriously. And this is evident in the most utilitarian of structures, their power plants.

Both Svartsengi and the nearby Reykanes plant are stunning examples of modern industrial architecture. Rather than being blots on the landscape, they are literally shining examples that Iceland takes renewable energy and its place in the landscape seriously. It’s a lesson that power-plant developers should take to heart outside Iceland.

The Great Energy Challenge is an important three-year National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation. National Geographic has assembled some of the world’s foremost researchers and scientists to help tackle the challenge. Led by Thomas Lovejoy, a National Geographic conservation fellow and renowned biologist, the team of advisers will work together to identify and provide support for projects focused on innovative energy solutions.