Educating the whole world about sustainable energy in Iceland
“We’re here in order to learn how to correct the mistakes our fathers made with oil,” says Máté Osvald, a Hungarian student at Reykjavík University’s Iceland School of Energy (ISE). He is one of 36 international students who have come to Iceland to learn about sustainable energy by participating in a summer programme that gives its scholars hands-on experience. Although Iceland may not have been the first country in the world to harness its renewable resources, it has quickly come to be a global leader in sustainable energy, at a time where the future of the energy industry is all too uncertain.
An Icelandic education in energy
“Iceland School of Energy was founded with the goal of harnessing the expertise and knowledge gained in Iceland through the country’s transition from coal and oil to renewable energy,” explains ISE Director Halla Hrund Logadóttir. “We believe that connecting academia and industry is extremely important in order to tackle the many challenges that follow increased energy demand and the issues of climate change.”
As with most subjects, being able to study something directly in the field is far preferable to studying it solely from diagrams and books. Given that roughly 85% of Iceland’s total energy is produced domestically and from renewable sources, it is in a privileged position to teach visiting scholars about energy systems—namely hydroelectric and geothermal power—that they may not have access to at home.
“We have the same resources as Iceland in Peru,” says Ximena Guardia Muguruza, a Peruvian student studying in ISE’s full-time master’s in Sustainable Energy, “but we just haven’t learned how to utilise them yet. It’s my goal to take the knowledge I gain here back to Peru to make our energy production and consumption better.” Ximena is not alone in her pursuit to learn from the Icelandic example; students from all over the world have enrolled with ISE to learn firsthand how energy can be produced and managed more sustainably.
“The kind of access that students have to geothermal and hydropower plants here is unparalleled,” explains Samuel Perkin, an Australian engineer and graduate of ISE. “You wouldn’t be able to walk right into these places in other countries and get this kind of firsthand experience.” Accordingly, ISE has designed its summer school to include field trips to some of these sites, including the Hellisheiði geothermal and Búrfell hydropower plants.
Búrfell and beyond
On a recent excursion, ISE summer school students viewed energy production in action with a guided tour to the Búrfell hydropower station given by their professor, nuclear engineer Ágúst Valfells. Straddling the Þjórsá river in South Iceland, Búrfell has come to be one of the country’s main hubs of electricity production. It generates roughly one-sixth of all electricity produced in the whole of Iceland, which leads Ágúst to estimate that it could service about 300,000 people, or nearly the entire population of the country.
However, as students learn, around 80% of electricity produced in Iceland goes to power intensive industries, including, most notably and controversially, aluminum smelting, which has come under attack for taking advantage of Iceland’s famously low energy prices without paying it forward to the Icelandic people and environment.
The ISE summer school does not sugarcoat the energy industry and attempts to show equanimity to all sides of its environmental debate. Ágúst narrates the excursion through Iceland’s mountainous southern region with Icelandic folk-tales and poignant anecdotes, leaving students with the perception that the land isn’t only for resource exploitation, but should also be revered. When passing by a proposed site for a new power plant, he is the first to point out and translate the nearby protest sign—“Áætluð lónshæð” (“Estimated reservoir height”)—showing that the new water level would be far above our heads if, in fact, that part of the river were flooded to accommodate a reservoir. With stops at Landmannalaugar to absorb the grandeur of wilderness and Sólheimajökull to see how climate change has precipitated the retreat of the glacier, distinct images of the Icelandic landscape accompany the students’ developing definition of sustainability.
While energy sustainability has a long way to go in places like Ximena’s native Peru and elsewhere in the world, the hope is that Iceland’s energy systems may inspire future sustainable practices elsewhere. And, if so, then the whole world may benefit from the Icelandic example.
Some Quick Facts About Energy In Iceland
For those of us who know next to nothing about geothermal power: a geothermal plant conducts electricity by sending steam or heated water through a turbine, whereby thermal energy is converted to electricity by using a generator. The world’s first geothermal power plant was built in 1911 in Larderello, Italy; in 1969, the first of these was built in Iceland at Bjarnarflag, near Lake Mývatn. Today, there are five main geothermal power plants in Iceland, the largest of which is the Hellisheiði power station.
And for those of us who know nothing about hydropower: water is held in a reservoir (usually by means of a man-made dam) and as it is released the pressure causes turbines to move. This movement is converted to electricity through the use of a generator. Iceland’s first hydropower plant was privately owned and built in Hafnarfjörður in 1904. In 1921, Reykjavík built the nation’s first municipal power plant. Today, there are thirteen main hydropower stations in Iceland, the largest of which is the Kárahnjúkar plant near Vatnajökull in Eastern Iceland.
According to Orkustofnun, the government agency charged with advising the Icelandic government on energy-related matters:
- Over 85% of Iceland’s total energy consumption and 99% of its electricity comes from renewable sources.
- Electricity production in Iceland is comprised of 71% hydroelectric power and 29% geothermal power.
- The majority of Iceland’s heating comes from geothermal waters. This has been the case since the 1970s.
- Today, oil consumption is primarily related to vehicle use, including cars, fishing vessels and aviation. Car oil consumption leads the way, having surpassed fishing vessel oil consumption in 2003. Aviation oil consumption also recently surpassed fishing vessel oil consumption in 2012.
What Is The Iceland School Of Energy?
The Iceland School of Energy was established as part of Reykjavík University in 2008 and offers two different MSc tracks—Sustainable Energy Engineering and Sustainable Energy—along with a three-week summer school programme. It was founded in partnership with two leading renewable energy companies in Iceland: Iceland Geosurvey and Reykjavík Energy. In the first year, there were eight MSc students, but ISE has since grown to include more than 30 MSc students, ranging in age from 22 to 35 and hailing from countries as diverse as Canada, Peru, Germany, Indonesia, Denmark, Mexico, Guatemala, Italy and the US. The cost for the programs is around 20,000 USD for a masters program and around 2,000 USD for a summer course.