Geothermal Energy in the Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland is a living and breathing model of energy sustainability – a country that has literally shown the world how to harness the power of the earth. We traveled to Iceland to meet with the top experts in geothermal energy and to discuss how state-of-the-art technologies enable human beings to access the internal pressure and heat – and then turn this power into renewable energies. What does this mean for the average Icelandic citizen? Well, when we talked with the locals they are quick to celebrate their extremely low energy bills and very long showers.

Geography

Located in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, just south of the Article Circle, Iceland’s land mass is about 40,000 square miles, which is roughly the size of Kentucky, with a population of about 330,000 people. Known as the Land of Fire and Ice, Iceland has some of the most unique and diverse terrain in the world. As we drove along Route 1, or the “Ring Road,” a national road that winds around the entire perimeter of the island, the landscape seemed to dramatically change every few minutes from expansive tundra, volcanic deserts, glacial waterfalls to hot springs and snow-capped mountains.

In Iceland, it is not just what is above the surface that is awe-inspiring, but also the volcanic activity that is occurring below. Iceland lies right in the middle of two continental tectonic plates: the Eurasian and North American. Known as the Mid Atlantic Ridge, this boundary between the two continents is still actively moving apart. It is this movement between the two earth plates, which creates the high level of earthquakes and volcanic activity, so common throughout Iceland.

It’s one thing to hear about geography, but a whole other experience to see it firsthand. We had the awesome opportunity to take a Geothermal Tour with Nordurflug Helicopter Tours. We started near Reykjavik, then flew outside of the city over a mountainous terrain, finally landing on top of the active volcano Hengill. Our expert pilot, Gunnar Svanur, explained to us that this volcano, “Has been quiet for a long time, about 2,000 years, but it has a lot of magma in the ground. So, when the water comes from the [nearby] glacier, it hits the magma, and then comes up here [on top of Hengill] because of the pressure.”

It was an incredible experience to be on top of a volcano!  Even though it was December, with temperatures well below zero and snow on the ground, there was still active steam and water literally bubbling out of the earth. We were able to place our hands in these bubbling hot springs, and the water felt as warm as bath water.

Harvesting Geothermal Energy

Iceland’s geography provides two important traits: huge underground reserves of water intersecting with large layers of heated magma, which makes geothermal energy possible. Dr. Hordur Arnarson, CEO of Landsvirkjun, the National Power Plant of Iceland explains, “We only have to drill about 1-2 km into the earth, where we have very high temperatures, then utilize [this harvested energy] in a very effective way to increase the standard of living in Iceland.”   

Once the underground water reserves are tapped, the power companies use the super-heated water in a step-wise process to reduce waste. The initial water, which is extremely hot at 200-300 degrees Celsius, is used to turn turbines and create electricity. Next, the lower temperature water is used to provide 97% of the local districts heat and hot water. Finally, the remaining water is used in several innovative ways to melt snow in streets, heat greenhouses and community swimming pools. Throughout this energy extraction process there is no burning of fossil fuels and “no mess”.

The Next Innovations

Though the power stations in Iceland are already supplying enough sustainable energy from geothermal and hydropower to fuel the entire island, there are plentiful resources to expand. As Dr. Arnarson explained, “We have much more energy than we need. We could heat many more homes.”

He went on to share the technological innovations that are currently being discussed at Landsvirkjun, “We [would like to go] much deeper into the ground to higher temperatures and higher pressures that could multiply the amount of energy that we could harness.” The goal would then be to export these sustainable energies to other countries. A plan being discussed right now is to sell the energy to the UK, and then ship it via an underground piping system.

We met with another innovator Kristinn Haflidason, project manager at Invest in Iceland, who explained that when extracting geothermal energy, powerplants generate several energy streams including electricity, hot and cold water, and carbon dioxide. In his work at Invest in Iceland, Kristinn is exploring how different companies could use more than one energy stream in unique ways to support their businesses.

A prime example in Iceland is the growing micro-algae industry. Kristinn explains, “Our program is offering Iceland as a location for algae companies to use all the energy streams from the geothermal powerplants, to produce their algae in a very controlled way for maximum yield and quality.” The streams would include electricity for consistent light, heat, water, carbon dioxide and land. One outcome of these algae farms would be “clean” omega three supplements for human beings. Also, since algae naturally consume carbon dioxide, this process would create a negative carbon footprint.

It was amazing to hear that such opportunities are now possible through Iceland’s sustainable energy program. The Land of Fire and Ice continues to innovate and demonstrate how human beings have the power to harness “green energy,” rather than completely depend on fossil fuels. We learned a memorable lesson in the earth’s abundance and are staying tuned, as this story continues to unfold.

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Katie Linendoll is a technology expert and is a regular on-air correspondent to AMHQ on The Weather Channel. Follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram and check out her website, www.katielinendoll.com!