In Iceland you’re made aware of the earth under your feet pretty much everywhere you go. You sense that it is very much alive, continuously breathing, releasing energy. This is especially evident in the Hengill area, where two of Iceland’s six existing geothermal plants, Hellisheiði and Nesjavellir, are located just a half-hour drive from Reykjavík.
To get there, I head southeast towards Hveragerði across vast lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula with Helgi Pétursson, one of the owners of Orkusýn, a company that shows visitors around the plants. On the way, he tells me about the use of geothermal energy in Iceland. “93% of the island’s houses are heated with geothermal energy compared to 7% in the rest of Europe, which is by far the most extensive geothermal space heating in the world,” he says, explaining that this can be attributed to the island’s favourable conditions.
Specifically, Iceland sits on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and European tectonic plates are actively moving away from each other at a velocity of two centimetres per year. Cold rainwater seeps into the earth’s surface, where it is heated by magma intrusions. The geothermal plants use the steam from this hot water, transforming its energy into electricity.
The idea of developing geothermal heat as a source of energy can be traced back to the early twentieth century, Helgi tells me. Experimental drilling started at Nesjavellir in 1965, but it was only in the 1980s that the final decision to build an electric power plant was made.
Geothermal energy has thus enabled people to live here more comfortably and partly explains why people stayed on this “godforsaken piece of land in the middle of the North Atlantic,” as Helgi calls it.
As we reach the top of a small mountain in the Hengill area, huge steam clouds rise over the grey sky, indicating the presence of the boreholes used to extract the steam from the ground. The fifty holes are 3,000 metres deep, where the water is at a constant temperature of 320 degrees Celsius. Here, the noise produced by the enormous force of nature is deafening, requiring the three people that work there to wear ear protection. The ground water comes up as steam and starts its journey through the power plant. The destination is Reykjavík via a one metre wide pipe, and its first stop is Perlan, the biggest pumping station on the island.
After this brief stop, we get back in the car and head to the visitor’s centre situated adjacent to the power plant. This futuristic looking building with its pointy roof was designed by architect Stefan Ivon Silica and is meant to represent the diverging tectonic plates. Inside, placards detail the function of the geothermal plants through informative graphs as well as general information about geothermal energy.
Preaching to the world
As the country with the highest energy consumption per capita in the world, Iceland is very much expected to make the most of its renewable energy. Already Helgi says that geothermal energy has saved Iceland 4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year. “But it is also trying to send a message to other countries,” Helgi tells me. “We are trying to preach the geothermal gospel to the rest of the world. Scientists from all over the world come to see this and take home what they see.”
Other countries are indeed interested in Iceland’s geothermal energy. The United Kingdom’s Energy Minister Charles Hendry, for instance, has recently suggested building an underwater cable to carry low carbon energy from Iceland to the UK to provide electricity. Whether this is feasible is debated, but Helgi is convinced that it is possible, giving him hope that the geothermal gospel is starting to be heard and he is sure that we will see a huge leap in this kind of energy, as we have to be increasingly aware of our environment.