The Stuff That Powers Iceland

The Stuff That Powers Iceland

Photo by
Supplied by the Geothermal Exhibition

An educational visit to a power plant is just what you need

“What’s that smoke?” is a common question pondered aloud by many a visitor to Iceland. White clouds emanating from otherwise barren expanses of lava stone and moss are eye-catching to be sure — especially at a time when “Iceland” and “volcano” are so often paired in international headlines. But it’s not smoke. It’s steam billowing from the countless geothermal wells and natural hotspots that dot the country.

The hot water running beneath Iceland has long played an important role in the nation, with many place names referencing steam or smoke (Reykjavík means “smokey bay”), a history of important figures dating back centuries doing some of their best thinking in the comfort of natural hot springs, women craning over steaming rivers to wash clothing, and every child for generations learning to swim in one of the many geothermally-heated recreational pools the country offers. The natural resource, so abundant thanks to Iceland sitting atop a volcanic plume and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, was harnessed for energy production and heating beginning in the 20th century and now 66% of the nation’s energy comes from geothermal sources.

Into the steam

On a springtime drive over Hellisheiði — a mountain plateau one crosses while travelling between Reykjavík and Hveragerði — no steam could be seen. Or, rather, it was indistinguishable from the heavy clouds that hung low on the heath, limiting visibility while intermittently pelting the vehicle with rain. The weather was unfortunate as I was partly depending on spotting the plumes of steam rising to the north of Route 1 to signal when I should turn off toward our destination.

Luckily, the roadside signage was clear enough that the van transporting my travel companions and I that wet and chilly May morning comfortably navigated the turn onto the road to our first stop of the day: Hellisheiðarvirkjun.

Orka náttúrunnar’s (ON) Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Plant is typically visible from the Ring Road, with its pointed roofline jutting outward and upward like the bow of a futuristic ship. It also usually stands out thanks to the copious amounts of steam it produces — the steam that today is blending so seamlessly with the clouds and fog.

Despite the weather trying its best to throw us off course, we pulled up to the power plant and ventured inside the building for a tour of ON’s Geothermal Exhibition.

Though a handful of Grapevine staffers were along for the tour, the journey to the geothermal exhibition that day was born out of my father’s interest in touring the plant as part of a larger Golden Circle tour. As I hadn’t been to the plant since a tour on my first ever visit to Iceland in 2008 — back when visits to the plant were part of organised Golden Circle tours — it was high time to return and get a crash course in the production of geothermal energy in Iceland.

Let the learning begin

Inside the massive volume of the plant’s reception area, wet jackets stowed away in the closet and hands warmed by mugs of coffee, ON science communicator Antonia gathered the group around a large map illustrating the geothermal hotspots throughout Iceland.

We also learned that the Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Plant is the eighth largest plant of its kind in the world and the largest in all of Iceland. It has a capacity of 200 MW in thermal power and 303 MW in electricity, all generated from the massive turbines we viewed from a glassed-in viewing deck overlooking the factory floor.

There she informed us about how Iceland’s geographical placement on the Earth is the reason for the abundance of geothermal energy. We also learned that the Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Plant is the eighth largest plant of its kind in the world and the largest in all of Iceland, with enough energy generated for 300,000 people, though much of it is directed to heavy industry. It is from this plant that Reykjavík gets much of its hot water supply, which speeds through pipelines toward the city at a rate of 950 litres per second.

Hooked on Antonia’s every word, we ventured upstairs to be guided through the process of how the plant harnesses steam from as deep as 3 km underground to generate electricity and heat groundwater for hot water supply. The plant, which launched in 2006, has a capacity of 200 MW in thermal power and 303 MW in electricity, all generated from the massive turbines we viewed from a glassed-in viewing deck overlooking the factory floor.

It was at this point in the tour that we lost the younger members of our travelling group, who were drawn away from the very real turbines and machinery to the interactive aspects of the exhibition that allowed them to turn wheels to see who could unleash their virtual hot water the fastest. Even if the kids weren’t as enthralled with the science of it all, the exhibition has been planned to keep everyone entertained.

Keeping things green

After being shown the lay of the land inside the plant and learning how geothermal energy and water is extracted from the Earth, it was time to see what ON is doing to reduce its carbon footprint.

With safety vests and hard hats on, we ventured outside and two minutes down the road to a small geodesic dome that fit right in with Iceland’s lunar landscape. This is one of the plant’s reinjection sites, where the technology of Carbfix captures 75% of the hydrogen sulphide and 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by the plant, mixes it with geothermal fluids and reinjects it deep into the ground. Through the wonders of science that, despite Antonia’s fascinating explanation, went far over this journalist’s head, the captured gases are injected into the basalt rock deep underground. The gases then react with the natural metals in the basalt to solidify overtime into a denser rock.

Inside the dome, with pipes coming in from all sides and connecting to head straight down into the ground, Antonia passed around a chunk of basalt rock, which is characteristically craggy and lightweight, followed by a stone in which carbon had been captured. For tactile learners, just feeling the difference in weight between the two stones spoke volumes.

Whether carbon capture of this sort is the solution to the world’s woes, I’m not entirely sure, but it was fascinating to see how Carbfix technology is being employed to make the operations of plants like Hellisheiði even greener.

Time to get golden

With our brains filled with new knowledge about Iceland’s history of harnessing geothermal resources from the time of the settlement to modern day, we bid Antonia and the other friendly folks at the Hellisheiði Power Plant farewell to continue on with our DIY Golden Circle tour.

Whether you’re driving the Golden Circle or just looking for something different to do within a quick 30-minute drive of Reykjavík, visiting the Geothermal Exhibition at Hellisheiði is well worth it. You’ll learn a whole lot and gain a greater appreciation for the stuff underground that keeps Iceland running.

Massive thanks to Go Car Rental for the sweet wheels to get us to Hellisheiði and beyond. Book your rental car in Iceland at and book your Geothermal Exhibition tour at

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