In the world of geothermal energy, Iceland is a top celebrity. This cold European country and popular tourist destination is burning with fire underneath. Nowhere else on Earth can we observe so many active volcanoes where eruptions occur every four to five years. Icelanders can thank for this spectacle of geothermal activity to its unique geographic location.
Iceland and other parts of the world including areas of western USA and Japan lie on top of shallow geothermal resources. Iceland, in particular, is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a place where two adjacent tectonic plates are moving away from each other. As a result, Earth’s crust is thin in these locations and magma lies close to the surface. Such conditions are perfect for hot water or steam to be captured from hot springs and piped directly into heat exchangers.
History and Current Use of Geothermal Energy
People of Iceland have benefited from this natural phenomenon for centuries. The easily accessible geothermal energy was originally used for bathing and washing clothes. The first use of geothermal energy for heating was recorded in 1907 when water from a hot spring was used to channel a steam into a house. Steam and hot water from geysers began heating homes in Iceland in 1943 when geothermal pipeline that was 11 miles long ran through Reykjavik, the largest city and the capital of Iceland. By 1945, the geothermal pipeline was connected to 2,850 homes.
Today, 57% of geothermal energy is used for space heating and direct-piped hot water heats all of the buildings in Reykjavík, where about fifty percent of Icelanders live. Being so accessible, direct-piped heating is the main application for geothermal energy in Iceland. Also, direct-piped water is used in many isolated rural homes in Iceland.
Besides heating applications, Icelanders use geothermal energy for many other purposes, making use of this plentiful and cheap resource. 15.9% of geothermal energy is used for electricity, while the remaining quantity is used to heat greenhouses, fish farms, swimming pools and thermal spas.
Currently, geothermal power heats 90% of the houses in Iceland while 54% of the primary energy mix in Iceland comes from geothermal sources. Despite having the richest geothermal resources in the world, geothermal energy supplies only 20% of Iceland’s electricity needs while most of Iceland’s electricity needs are supplied through hydroelectric power.
Rich Geothermal Resources
Iceland’s rich geothermal resources include 780 hot springs, 250 geothermal areas and 22 active volcanoes. Its most famous volcanoes are Eldgjá, Hekla, Eldfell and Laki. The eruption of Laki in 1783 was the largest eruption of lava in the last 500 years, causing clouds to appear for months after the eruption all over Europe as well as parts of Africa and Asia. One-third of all the lava that surfaced Earth during the last 1,000 years was of Icelandic origin. Other geothermal features include geysers such as Geysir and Strokkur which is a major tourist destination.
Geothermal power plants in Iceland are Nesjavellir, Reykjanes, Hellisheiði Krafla, and Svartsengi. The Svartsengi and the Nesjavellir produce both electricity and hot-water.
Ingenuity or Geological Auspice?
According to John Tabak (2009), one should be cautious to quickly glorify the inventiveness of Icelanders. Instead, the omnipresent use of geothermal energy may be thanked to the special circumstances that prevail there. This country has one of the greatest sources of geothermal energy in the world, but has small population that is concentrated in a few towns. The current population of Iceland is only 320,000 people, inhabiting 36,700 square miles (103,000 square kilometers), being the most sparsely inhabited European country. Therefore, it may not be sensible to generalize Iceland’s experience.
Finally, geothermal energy systems are likely to benefit from economies of scale, that bring more effective deployment of resources. Iceland’s extraordinarily high percentage of geothermally produced energy mirrors the uniqueness of its small economy rather than its expansive network of geothermal power plants. Energy for space heating is typically distributed to multiple buildings and communities bringing advantages through cost savings. Besides Reykjavik, similar systems of district heating are practiced all over the world in locations including Boise (Idaho) and Klamath Falls (Oregon).
Bibliography and Further Resources:
Tabak, J. (2009) Solar and Geothermal Energy.
Erfurt-Cooper P. and Cooper, M. (2010) Volcano and Geothermal tourism: Sustainable geo-resources for leisure and recreation.
Einarsson, B. (2006) The Geology of Iceland: Rocks and Landscape, Mál og Menning, Reykjavik, Iceland.
Jonasson, B. (ed) (2007) The Geology of Iceland, JPV Publishers, Reykjavik, Iceland.
Parnell, F. and O’Carroll, E. (2007) Iceland, Lonely Planet Publications, Footscray, Australia.
Thordarson, T. and Hoskuldsson, A. (2002) Classic Geology in Europe: Iceland, Terra Publishing, Hertfordshire, UK