In an article published this July, The New York Times called geothermal energy “the forgotten renewable.”
The article points to a report out from the Geothermal Enregy Association that examines the geothermal situation both in the U.S. and abroad. Ultimately, the report concluded that while the U.S. is lagging on harnessing geothermal energy, the international market is “booming.” It reports that more than 700 geothermal projects are underway in 76 countries.
16 of those projects are underway in the small island nation of Iceland, a pioneer in the use of geothermal energy. The idyllic country is known for its vast mountains and glaciers, is also known for its extremely active geothermal profile.
Iceland has found a way to harness the power of the earth, with nearly 25 percent of the country’s total electricity generation coming from geothermal. What places Iceland in a prime position to utilize geothermal energy, what are they doing currently, and what are their plans for the future?
Location, Location, Location
Much of Iceland’s relationship with geothermal energy comes down to one factor: location. Iceland is, geologically, a very young country. Straddling the Mid-Atlantic ridge, one of the Earth’s major fault lines, Iceland is one of the few countries where one can see the active spreading of the ridge above sea level. The two tectonic plates—the North American and Eurasian plates—move apart at a rate of about 2 cm per year.
In general, Iceland is active tectonically. Iceland also more than 200 volcanoes and 30 of them have erupted since the country was initially settled. Iceland is also frequently hit with Earthquakes, though never suffers any substantial damage from them. The country is littered with geothermal hotspots, and currently, there are more than 600 known hot springs.
In Iceland, there are high and low temperature zones, depending on their location and proximity to the active volcanic zones. High temperature zones are located in the volcanic zones and mostly on high ground. In these zones, water follows the boiling point curve, with the highest recorded at 386̊ C. The low temperature zones are located outside of the active volcanic zones and can be seen as hot springs or warm rains.
This unique location affords Iceland unfettered access to some of the world’s most active geological areas and they are more certainly making use of it.
Geothermal as a Hot Commodity
In 2013, geothermal energy was used for a number of different purposes, both on an industrial and consumer-facing level. While the majority of usage is comprised of electricity generation (40 percent) and space heating (43 percent), others such as fish farming and snow melting remain vitally important.
That wasn’t always the case, though.
Until the early twentieth century, geothermal in Iceland was used exclusively for bathing, laundry, and cooking. While no longer exclusive, those facets of life are still powered by geothermal in an almost entirely sustainable manner. Heating greenhouses is still a vital part of Iceland’s food economy, since geothermal is used to disinfect the soil.
Other direct utilizations include the manufacture of seaweed, production of salt, and cooking.
The niche that geothermal has really filled, though, is in electricity generation. Even for a country with fewer than 330,000 people, electricity is still in high demand. Thankfully, as demand has risen, so has supply, thanks in part to the harnessing of geothermal. In the late 1970s, geothermal began to slowly make its way into the Icelandic mainstream energy market. It wasn’t until almost 2007 that growth took off exponentially. Three new geothermal facilities got the country to its 2012 levels, in which the country produced 4,600 GWh, or 24.5 percent of the country’s total electricity production.
Iceland isn’t exactly a huge consumer of electricity, but its aluminum consumes the most by far. Accounting for 68.4 percent of the country’s energy consumption, the industry used more than 12,000 GWh in 2013. The next closest consumer is the ferrosilicon industry, accounting for 8.7 percent of electricity consumption at less than 2000 GWh.
Almost all of electricity, some 99 percent, is produced from renewable sources, though the potential for geothermal in Iceland is still relatively untapped.
"It's been estimated that by conventional use of geothermal, the available power in Iceland could be on the order of 20 to 30 terawatt-hours per year," Ólafur Flóvez, general director of ÍSOR, or Iceland Geosurvey, told Scientific American. "Currently we're producing maybe four terawatt-hours per year."
The country is attracting industrial attention, though. American aluminum giant Alcoa is investing heavily in Iceland and Microsoft and Google have expressed interest in Iceland as well.
While Iceland’s geothermal present looks relatively conventional, it’s the future that is more than just steam.
Powering the Future
The next step for Iceland is to make geothermal energy more widely accessible and keep its focus squarely on sustainability. Iceland’s National Energy Authority (Orkustofnun) has developed a plan to keep production feasible and avoid doing things in excess. Calling it “stepwise development.” The approach involves estimating the size of the next development step once one has been completed. This will help curb drilling and exploration costs.
The Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) is also looking for new sources of geothermal energy deeper in the earth. In 2009, they found molten lava more than a mile underground. Now, they have been able to convert the lava to energy.
Professor emeritus of geology at University of California, Riverside, told The Conversation that this could be a major breakthrough for Iceland, noting that “drilling into magma is a very rare occurrence, and this is only the second known instance anywhere in the world.”
“Essentially, IDDP-1 is the world’s first magma-enhanced geothermal system, the first to supply heat directly from molten magma,” Elders continued. “This could lead to a revolution in the energy efficiency of high-temperature geothermal projects in the future.”
Not all are thrilled, however. As Iceland begins to export geothermal energy and both Canadian- and U.K-based companies begin to move in, the locals are divided on whether to keep the power homegrown, or foster international growth. As more focus is being placed on the geothermal industry in Iceland, keeping foreign investors out may be a difficult task.
Already, it would seem, the day has come where geothermal isn’t the “forgotten renewable” after all—both in Iceland and beyond.