Before we started jailing bankers, Iceland’s strongest memetic power was in our energy grid. Our energy consumption may be proportionately higher than that of a lot of countries, but it’s what generates our power that gained us an international reputation as a “green” country: hydro- and geothermal power. Our geothermal power, which accounts for about 25% of the grid, has been a particular source of fascination for people the world over as a clever source of energy that is both clean and renewable. As with a lot of memes about Iceland, it’s not entirely true, and new research has shown it may in fact be hazardous to your health.
This research, only recently made public, shows that people living close to a geothermal plant “have higher incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and kidney cancers than others. These populations are exposed to chronic low-level ground gas emissions and various pollutants from geothermal water.” The research further concludes that “as the dose-response relationships were positive between incidence of cancers and duration of residence, it is now more urgent than before to investigate the chemical and physical content of the geothermal water and of the ambient air of the areas to detect recognized or new carcinogens.”
Within 24 hours, the backlash against these findings had begun. Perhaps unsurprisingly, representatives of these geothermal plants have dismissed the research as inaccurate. But none of this is new—as the research points out, this latest data is consistent with previous findings.
Geothermal energy also has other problems, in that its emissions can be highly polluting, and even the hot water that comes out of the ground can contain chemicals such as mercury, arsenic and boron. This can be stemmed to a large extent by pumping the steam back into the ground for further recycling and filtration, but the fact that these geothermal areas are, by their very nature, geologically active, means that one strong earthquake can damage these piping systems, letting pollutants leach into the groundwater and potentially affecting plants, animals and the humans that drink it. And it should go without saying that geothermal energy is not an unlimited source. It is finite — a single source can last anywhere from a few centuries to a few decades. But again, this is nothing new. When I reported on it five years ago it wasn’t new.
This is not to say, of course, that geothermal energy is just as polluting and unsustainable as, say, coal or oil. Clearly, geothermal energy is cleaner, safer and more sustainable than fossil fuels by a long shot. But it may be time to consider bringing even cleaner and more sustainable energy sources into the mix. Wind power has shown considerable promise, and anyone who has spent as much as a day in Iceland can probably attest to the abundance of wind in this country. A few windmills have already been raised, and they have yielded some promising results.
Geothermal energy may always have a home on our power grid, but we may want to think about how much we lean on it, as we try to broaden our available energy source options to include even more sustainable and cleaner models, as countries elsewhere have with remarkable success. Our green reputation is still something we need to live up to.