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Iceland's rift valley
Where people and continents meet. This is one of Iceland's more famous rift valleys. It is here that Icelanders of old met annually. Today its a national park. The hills in the distance sit atop the European tectonic plate, while the rocks in the foreground are part of the North American tectonic plate. The valley is widening by 1-2 inches annually. Photo credit: EV World.

Sustainable Iceland: Geothermal Wonderland

Part three in the Sustainable Iceland series on its aim to create the world's first 'hydrogen economy'

By Bill Moore

In many ways, Iceland is unique in the world: it has more renewable energy than it knows what to do with, both hydroelectric and geothermal.

The island nation -- which took advantage of the Nazi occupation of ruling Denmark during the Second World War to declare its independence -- is located in the far North Atlantic between Greenland and Scotland, the two nearest landmasses. It sits astride the mid-Atlantic ridge where the tectonic plates on which ride the European and North American land masses are slowly being wedged apart one to two inches a year by deep volcanic magma forcing its way to the surface.

For some unknown reason, nature saw fit to create this volcanic island of 103,000 square km near the Arctic Circle rather than the Equator. If it had been born further south, its population today would, undoubtedly, be more than the current 296,737 handsome and hardy souls that live there now; and instead of speaking a version of ancient Norse, they’d probably be speaking Spanish or Portuguese. It likely wouldn’t have been called Iceland, either.

It is a land of stark, almost haunting beauty that reminded me of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, a far older region of now-long extinct volcanic activity. Where the valleys of Wyoming are covered in sage, Iceland’s much younger lava fields are covered in thick, spongy carpets of grayish-green moss. Black cinder domes pockmark the landscape flagging the presence of molten reservoirs kilometers below the surface; and where lava and subterranean water meet super-heated steam if formed creating a fabulously rich and renewable energy resource.

Although Icelanders have known about geysers for centuries -- the word, itself is derived from the original Icelandic -- it wasn’t until the 1930s that they were able to tap into their geothermal endowment, starting first with a school in Reykjavik and then its indoor swimming pool across the street. Today, virtually every building on the island is heated with geothermal steam flowing through an estimated 2-3000 miles of underground pipe in Reykjavik, alone. Seventy-two percent of all the nation’s energy comes from renewable resources.

Colonies of greenhouses growing fruits, vegetables and flowers are also heated by geothermal hot water and lighted in the winter by cheap electricity, about 25% of which comes from the same nearly limitless source. On the outskirts of the capital some of that power is used to crack hydrogen from water to fuel a trio of fuel cell transit buses. It is hoped that these buses will be the harbingers of what will by 2050 the world’s first "hydrogen economy".

To give those of us who participated in General Motor’s first "Hydrogen Pathways" press trip to Iceland a sense of the nation’s geothermal wealth -- and examples of it literally surrounded the Nordica Hotel in Reykjavik -- we visited a geothermal power plant on the slopes of a steaming volcanic culdera where both electric power and steam are sent to the capital and surrounding communities. We also heard presentations from officials at Iceland New Energy, the University, the government and the local power company.

To appreciate the context of Iceland’s truly unique situation, you have to start with an understanding of its place atop the mid-Atlantic ridge (illustration 1 below). Where virtually all of the ridge is buried under thousands of feet of water, here in Iceland you can walk across it. The photo above is of the "rift valley" where Iceland’s people pilgrimaged annually on horseback for hundreds of years to listen to the law read and to resolve disputes. It may have been in this very valley that its farmers agreed to limit their flocks of sheep to prevent overgrazing and its resultant erosion of the island’s fragile top soils. On the lower left of the photo are the rocks that make up the North American tectonic plate. The hills in the distance stand atop the European plate, the valley between is forming from the gradual movement of the two plates away from each other. At the far end of the valley is a large lake (illustration 2) and just beyond that is the 120 MW geothermal power plant at Hellisheiði.

According to local experts, there are two types of geothermal fields on the island: high temperature -- greater than 200 degrees Celsius -- and low temperature fields under 150 degrees C. To date, Iceland is exploiting the equivalent of just over 8.5 terra watt hours (TWh) of energy annually, rising to 16TWh by 2010, from both its hydroelectric and geothermal resources out of an estimated potential of 55TWh. (See Illustration 5). In fact, Icelanders have the highest per capita rate of electric power use in Europe and possibly the world.

Not that everyone is in favor of more dams. There is some healthy dissent in the country over a new dam going up in the north. One would suspect the same would apply to over-development -- if that’s even possible -- of its geothermal resources.

Like the rest of the planet, Iceland is also heavily dependent on petroleum to run its marine fleet and motor vehicles, all of which has to be imported through the Esso terminal down in the harbor. Gasoline is currently selling in Rekjavik for the equivalent of about $6.50 a gallon. One of our tour guides, a tall Icelander named Fredrik, intimated to me that he’d recently bought a Chinese-made electric motor scooter to get around his home town of Hafnarfjördur in order to save money on fuel. He calculated it costs him just 25 cents US to drive it 60 km. It would cost him $16US to do that in his Land Rover. Of course, he can’t drive it everywhere or all the time, but it has to help for some of those short trips. Consumers in Iceland pay the equivalent of just 7.5 cent/kwh.

Drilling Deeper
With only a small percentage of their geothermal power being taped, a consortium of private and government agencies are planning to drill even deeper wells in the hope to reaching super-critical steam heat 5 km below the surface that is 430-550 degrees C. Current wells can be as deep as 2 km and cost $2 million each. The IDDP project, as it’s known, will cost $20 million. The payoff is not only super-heated steam, but super-pressure as well, potentially 230-260 bar (3335-3770 psi). Conventional wells are 30 bar (430 psi)

Interestingly, according to a Foreign Affairs ministry official with whom I spoke, power companies in Iceland have to sell both the electricity and the steam to make a profit. So, the economics of drilling fewer wells to get more power is very attractive.

According to Iceland New Energy’s managing director, Jón Bjorn Skulason, Iceland could power all its vehicle and marine fleet with an estimated 4-5TWh/yr of electric power that would be converted into hydrogen. That represents about half its current usage, but only a 10th of its potential energy output.

Of course, geothermal power is in its own way a finite resource. Like oil wells, they can be over-produced. The estimate life of current geothermal wells in Iceland is between 30-50 years, though it could be longer. Fields do have to be managed and they aren’t entirely environmentally benign since they do bring up caustic minerals that have to be re-injected in the field. Surprisingly, geothermal streams also contain small amounts of carbon dioxide which is released into the atmosphere, but as one expert explained to me, it’s no more than naturally would be released, albeit sooner than nature would have allowed.

Iceland’s challenge then is to find ways to make use of its energy wealth without despoiling its environment. It’s three aluminum smelter plants, all owned by U.S. companies, are a case in point. Because electric power is so cheap and abundant, it’s an ideal location to make aluminum, which is an energy intensive process and not entirely emissions-free. CO2 is created and there is waste from the smelting process, which we were told is dumped out into the ocean. Many Icelanders aren’t entirely happy with the smelters, though they have contributed to the island’s growing wealth. On a per capita basis, Icelanders are some of the wealthiest people in Europe, and the growth of private cars, including SUVs, and roaring real estate prices testify to that.

Iceland is hoping to add one more export to its list of fish, fine wool, chocolates, cosmetics and aluminum: geothermal energy development. One expert calculated that just 0.1 percent of the heat energy stored in the Earth’s crust -- estimated at 5 billion exajoules -- would be enough to power the entire planet for 13,500 years! We just have to figure out how to get to it efficiently, economically, and in an environmentally responsible manner. That’s what Icelanders are hoping to do.

Iceland’s Achilles Heel is its total dependence on outside technology. With a population smaller than most medium-sized American cities, they simply haven‘t the resources to go it entirely on their own. They are dependent on the outside world for all of their modern technology from their steel-hulled trawlers to their aluminum smelters to the corrugated sheet metal that clad their homes and apartments. They have to trade to survive and find a way to wisely use the energy with which they’ve been blessed.

That will be Iceland’s biggest challenge.

Collection of PowerPoint slides from presentation by Bjarni Bjarnason


Illustration 1 - Iceland was created by the upwelling of lava from the gradually spreading mid-Atlantic ridge.


Illustration 2 - Composite satellite image of southwestern Iceland.


Illustration 3 - Location of operating and proposed geothermal power plants situated along exposed section of mid-Atlantic ridge which runs down the middle of the island, branching in two in the southwest.


Illustration 4 - Cross-section of geothermal/volcanic system underlying the Krafla fields in the north of the island.


Illustration 5 - Chart showing renewable energy power utilization in Iceland in 2005 and forecast for 2010. Much of the industrial use of the power is being absorbed by three aluminum smelters, whose bauxite ore is shipped from the opposite side of the planet in Australia.


Illustration 6 - Photograph of the Krafla geothermal power plant in winter.

Times Article Viewed: 27100
Published: 24-May-2006

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