From Iceland — Harnessing Volcanoes in Iceland

Harnessing Volcanoes in Iceland

Published May 20, 2016

Harnessing Volcanoes in Iceland
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Julia Staples

Over and over again, news reports highlight the possibility of an undersea cable, connecting Icelandic power plants to the UK grid. This expensive device would transmit 500-1,000 megawatts, enough to supply a single large city with electricity. One can look at that as a huge asset or be realistic and admit that this amount of power will not change the energy scene in the UK. Businesspeople can cleverly advertise a futuristic notion of tapping into lively volcanoes, or acknowledge the simple fact that today only about 27% of the electricity in Iceland is produced using geothermal resources of volcanic origin, as compared to 73% utilizing hydropower. These hydropower plants are powered by river water originating from the large glacial ice caps. Why not look soberly into the facts?

Limited resources

Currently, the total electrical energy production stands at about 17 terrawatts per year. That corresponds to a total constant power output of about 2,600 mw. One fifth of that energy goes to domestic and industrial uses. The rest is consumed by energy-intensive industry—mainly three foreign aluminum plants, soon to be expanded with a few smaller plants, producing silicon metal (raw silica) and pure silica for solar cells.

The current official plan for Icelandic electrical energy production includes some additional hydropower plants, but the main emphasis is on geothermal power, with a total output of 1,400 mw estimated from both sources. Each geothermal power plant requires many years to be put stepwise into operation for a sensible, maximum output from its hot reservoir. This plan does not imply that all the possible projects will be realized.

In view of this, how much more power is there to get from Iceland’s nature with today’s technology, taking environmental issues into consideration? The opinions differ, but a figure for the total power output lands somewhere around 4,000 MW in the foreseeable future.

For whom?

Now, other questions arise. What about the domestic need for more “green electricity?” Who gets what is there to get? Foreign companies, requiring hundreds of megawatts for their activities, wait in line to start operating in Iceland. A growing population and domestic industrial development will require at least 600 mw by 2050. Plans for transitioning from imported fossil fuels to fuels produced in Iceland—like alcohol, methane, biodiesel and hydrogen—have been debated, and large-scale greenhouse food production is also on the agenda. All these industries probably need a few hundred additional megawatts. This means that Iceland has to retain at least 1,500-2,000 mw for its own use, as of today, until 2050.

One of the arguments for a sea cable is the fact that there are currently some 200-300 stray megawatts available in the electrical power sector. A few additional power plants would then add what is needed as a minimum for an underwater cable. But looking at the future domestic consumption assessments, it is hard to guess where some 500-1,000 mw could be found for the UK.

Drilling deeper

However, new development could change Icelandic energy capabilities and maybe facilitate a sea cable in the far future. The international Iceland Deep Drilling Project aims to find out if steam at super-critical conditions exists at a depth of 4-6 km. Theoretically, if harnessed, a superhot steam well would produce five to ten times the amount of energy of the wells which currently exist. Two IDDP test boreholes have failed (except as research). A third borehole is soon to be drilled. Until then, controllable “mega-wells” only exist on paper. Two recent windmills (each producing about 1 mw) provide interesting data. Wind parks, producing a few hundred megawatts, could be operating within the next decade or two, but will not radically change the energy scene. However, if one or more of Iceland’s metal-processing plants were to close down, it would free up hundreds of megawatts.

The feasibility calculations of a sea cable between Iceland and the UK, and the research into formal and legal matters, as well as what positive and negative aspects interconnection to the mainland grid would have in Iceland, are interesting. However, Iceland does not have the capability to make a real difference for electrical energy consumption in the UK and will not, for quite many years to come, have enough available energy to sell abroad. Besides, if the connection to the continental grid causes electricity prices to rise in Iceland, it would have a highly negative influence on the attitude towards the project.

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