Iceland is often celebrated for its prodigious use of geothermal power. Apart from providing over a quarter of the national output of electricity (hydropower provides the rest) almost all Icelandic homes are heated with geothermally warmed water that passes through a vast network of pipes into simple radiators in each building. All in all, this provides 87% of the heat needed to keep every single building in Iceland toasty warm through the winter months.
Icelanders have a very old and intimate relationship with geothermal power. You can experience the Disney version of the love affair in the Blue Lagoon or visit one of the countless local swimming pools around the country to witness the modern-day rituals of Icelandic bathers.
At least four ancient geothermal pools exist to this day, with the oldest being Snorralaug. It is believed to have been used by the incomparable saga-writer Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, who would relax in its warm waters between the writing sessions that provided us with some of the most important texts of the old Nordic culture.
It was with some alarm, then, that Icelanders received the news that they needed to start conserving the resource that many considered infinite. In the tail-end of January, officials sent out a press release asking people to reduce their consumption of hot water to ensure there was enough to continue heating homes through a particularly bad cold spell. This was not a long spell, maybe a couple of weeks, so the fact that it was enough to test the limits of our hot water capacity raised some uncomfortable questions.
Some pools went so far as to close their hot tubs temporarily— if there is one thing you don’t want to do, it is to get between an Icelander and his hot tub. But the pools, numerous as they are, aren’t the major consumers of geothermal heat.
That would be the homes, offices, factories and other buildings that require a constant stream of new and warm water during the winter months.
90% of the geothermal water consumed in Icelandic houses runs through our radiators. Only a tenth is used for showers, baths, washing clothes and dishes, etc. This would lead one to believe that rates of usage would be rather predictable.
Veitur, the provider of hot water in the capital and surrounding regions, says the distribution network can actually handle much more than current demand, but they underestimated the increase in usage and are rushing to increase overall production capacity. Their spokesman was quoted in the media as saying they would soon bring online new boreholes that would increase capacity by 30%.
This ever-so-slight crisis (which is over for the time being) does put a spotlight on the unfortunate fact that geothermal power is not, in fact, renewable in the traditional sense. Or, indeed, in any useful sense. The heat produced diminishes steadily over the years a borehole is in use and the system thus requires constant exploration and drilling to maintain the same output.
It may feel like we sit on top of an infinite source of heat and power, but there are very real limitations to how it can be exploited with current technology. This becomes evident in instances like the ones experienced in the chilly first days of February.
Water, water, everywhere
The response on social media, to these rather reserved calls for saving hot water temporarily, were quite interesting. They were largely indignant or mocking in tone, cursing the weather and wondering what would happen if it got really bad. The cold spell in February was not exactly noteworthy for its length or severity, after all.
Icelanders are not about to stop taking hot baths or regular trips to swimming pools and the notion that our energy comes clean and cheap is pervasive in the national psyche. Sooner or later, however, they are likely to come up against the limitations of such thinking.
To paraphrase Coleridge:
Water, water, everywhere,
Oh how shall we behave?
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to bathe.