Iceland has become a popular travel destination in no small part due to an interest and increased awareness of the unique landscapes that can be found nowhere else. Among other things, travellers can traverse to one of the dozens of volcanoes scattered throughout the island, and afterwards, relax from the day’s adventure in a hot spring bath amongst Icelanders and other likeminded tourists.
Both of these iconic Icelandic scenes are a visual representation of the vast amount of renewable energy – enough to power and heat all of Iceland and beyond – that lies just below the country’s surface.
Lying astride one of the major fault lines on earth, the mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland is situated in one of the most tectonically active places on earth. With the Eurasian and North American plates moving apart, the result can mean enough volcanic activity to satisfy any volcano chaser – and enough to occasionally shut down trans-European flights due to ash-darkened skies, as happened in 2010. However, the positive side of all of this tectonic plate activity is that the heat generated in the earth’s crust can be used for heat and power generation.
Magma formed by plate tectonic activity generates a vast amount of steam when it comes in contact with groundwater far below the surface. You can witness natural vents throughout Iceland continuously bellowing steam on the surface – a measure of only a miniscule amount of the steam trapped below.
By drilling into areas where steam is known to gather – in some cases as close as 1000 meters below the ground – it can be channeled to the surface and used either to turn turbines to facilitate electricity production, or pipelined directly into the buildings and homes throughout the country for the purpose of space heating.
There is a history of geothermal energy use in Iceland that dates back to medieval times. Some of the first settlers of the area were ingenious enough to tap into the hot springs that bubble to the surface and use the heat generated to warm their homes. And of course, there is the use of hot spring water to provide year-round baths – a tradition that is still prevalent today.
However, as with most nations in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Iceland became reliant on imported oil and coal to heat homes, power industry, and keep the lights on.
When the oil crisis of the 1970s hit and drove oil prices up significantly, Iceland turned its attention on the locally available geothermal energy as an alternative power and heating source. Unlike many other countries, when the price of oil dropped again, Iceland did not return to its oil-dependant ways, and instead continued to invest in geothermal energy.
When you look at the statistics, you can better understand what that has meant for the generation of power in Iceland since. This is a country with one of the highest per capita energy use in the world, and yet the vast majority is from sustainable means. Roughly 85% of primary energy comes from renewable resources in Iceland – with 66% being geothermal energy. In fact, nine out of ten homes are heated directly through geothermal energy and roughly a third of all electricity produced is from geothermal electrical generation.
With an estimation that only 20-25% of the geothermal potential has been put into use, there is a great chance that geothermal will power all of Iceland’s heating and energy needs of the future, and there is even talk of exporting excess energy to countries such as England or Ireland.
While being able to use geothermal energy to its fullest potential is a priority for the Icelandic government – there is even a push to incentivize companies such as Google and Microsoft to host their large data centres in Iceland due to low energy costs – there are also environmental and social use impacts that are driving how geothermal is being developed.
Passed into law very recently, Iceland’s decision to pursue geothermal on a national level is guided by a master plan that considers both the economic and environmental impacts of geothermal energy development. The master plan is revised every four years, updated based on the best available scientific research as well as the advice from the steering committee who advise the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources on the best course of action.
The risk of overdevelopment includes the degradation of land that could be used as habitat and recreational purposes, as well as the potential of depleting the geothermal resource.
While geothermal energy is a renewable resource, it can still either be used in a sustainable or in an excessive manner. Just as forests can be overharvested to the point that regeneration is not possible, so too can geothermal sources be overdeveloped to the point where the steam source is not replenished to meet electrical and heating needs. As part of the master plan, extraction is monitored closely to avoid over-stressing the resource.
There are many benefits to being able to tap into a local, sustainable resource – as is also the case with other resources around the world, from deep lake cooling in the Great Lakes, to offshore wind farms dotted along the coast of the UK. Geothermal energy is producing usable energy potential every day, whether we use it or not. By making the investment and commitment to use these sources of energy that are naturally occurring right at our doorsteps, nations are taking a great leap forward towards a future run on sustainable energy.
So if you find yourself taking a trip to Iceland sometime in the near future, take time to marvel not only at the scenery, but also at the heated sidewalks you’ll trek on, the well-heated hotel you’ll stay in, and the hot spring bath you’ll relax in – chances are you are witnessing the very real and practical application of renewable energy right beneath your feet.