I’ve known for years that Iceland is a geothermal paradise, so when we went there this summer, I made sure to pay some attention to its power supply.
As it turned out, that was absurdly easy to do. You can’t travel in Iceland without encountering the power of geothermal energy, and many Icelanders we met bragged about their geothermal systems. We even encountered several museum exhibits highlighting volcanic and geothermal activity.
While there is significant use of hydropower along with geothermal, we saw almost no solar in Iceland – in part because usually they don’t have too much sun, and in part because geothermal and hydro are readily available and produce much steadier (and cheaper) power.
In the United States, where I live, harnessing geothermal energy typically involves drilling below the earth to a layer with a year-round consistent temperature of about 50°F/10°C, and tapping into that layer to boost heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. I live in the northeast United States, in a region called New England, where temperatures typically range from -5°F/-20.5°C on a cold winter night to around 95°F/35°C on a hot, sunny summer afternoon. In fact, my neighbours just installed a geothermal system in their house, which was built in 1747. Like most geothermal installations in the US, they are using the thermal power directly, to heat and cool water.
In actively volcanic Iceland, it’s a different story. Temperatures in many of the hot springs are close to the boiling point of water – hot enough to kill a person quickly. All you have to do is feel the water coming out of the hot tap to know that geothermal means something different there. It’s HOT! As hot as the solar-heated water I use in my home, which is hotter than tap water from most fossil-heated sources. So that aspect of Iceland felt very familiar.
There are several differences, though. First, the water at home smells of the chlorine that municipal authorities use to purify it. In many parts of Iceland, including the capital, Reykjavik, the water smells strongly of sulphur – so strongly that my toothbrush would smell like elderly eggs, hours after brushing.
Another difference is the ubiquity of the system. Geothermal is heavily commercialised in Iceland. Municipalities harness and pipe it into virtually every house and building, as well as the numerous geothermally heated municipal swimming pools and hot tubs in literally every town we visited. But in the US, geothermal systems are purchased by the individual homeowner, and are expensive enough that people are very cautious about making such a large investment. My neighbours spent US$38,000 on their system.
And third, I was surprised at how much geothermal power is used to run turbines to generate electricity, and how much of that electricity is transported across significant distances; I’d expected most of it to be heating water for direct use rather than spinning turbines, and to be used near the point of origin, as it is at home. Transporting energy across distances cuts down on efficiency.
But efficiency and conservation aren’t such big concerns in Iceland. We were rather surprised that saving water or electricity didn’t seem to be a value. People just ran the water or left lights on. Their attitude was that they had plenty, it was really cheap, and they didn’t have to worry about running out.
Personally, I think that’s shortsighted. They may have plenty now, but that could change in the future, especially as the country begins exporting to parts of Europe that are not so richly endowed with power. I think the conservation-isn’t-important attitude will change with education and a values-shift, just as it has shifted in Asia, North America, and especially continental Europe. Meanwhile, Iceland can truly claim to have one of the greenest power grids in the world.
In a country with only 318,452 inhabitants as of January 2011, and approximately 116,000 households, this tiny country has the capacity to supply much of Europe’s energy needs. In fact, plans are afoot to build deep-sea cables that will export as much as five billion kilowatt-hours of clean, renewable electricity to the rest of Europe – enough to power 1.25 million homes. Those of you based in Europe, especially, should be on the lookout for opportunities to profit from this coming industrial shift. And those in other seismically active parts of the world might want to think about how to get your country into massive geothermal.