Feature of the Week: Earth’s Warmth

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Feature of the Week: Earth’s Warmth

Community use of geothermal energy

Hellisheidarvirkjun geothermal power plant.

Published in the 2009 winter issue of Iceland Review – IR 47.04. By Lowana Veal, photos by Páll Stefánsson.

Though geothermal energy is considered a novelty in many countries, for Icelanders it is part and parcel of everyday life. In Reykjavík, 89 percent of houses are heated using geothermal energy, and the resource as a whole makes up 63 percent of the country’s primary energy consumption.

Icelanders have been particularly inventive in their use of geothermal energy. Although they first started to use geothermal energy in the late nineteenth century for heating soil to grow outdoor vegetables, and continued in a small way in the early twentieth century for heating swimming pools, greenhouses and buildings, it was only during the oil crisis in the 1970s that Icelanders started to develop their geothermal resources in earnest, as a way of becoming self-sufficient in energy.

Now there are six geothermal power plants in the country. Three of these, the tiny Bjarnarflag by Lake Mývatn and the larger Nesjavellir and Svartsengi plants, provide hot water for district heating as well as electricity, whereas the Reykjanes, Krafla and Hellisheidi plants are solely used for producing electricity.

All of these power stations are located in high-temperature geothermal fields, where the water emerges at 200°C and is so full of minerals and gases that it cannot be used directly for heating purposes. Instead, it is used to heat cold water that can then be used for space heating. However, water from high-temperature areas is ideal for producing electricity.

Low-temperature geothermal areas produce water at a temperature that does not exceed 150°C, which can be used directly for district heating purposes. One such area lies in Mosfellsdalur, on the outskirts of Reykjavík, and is tapped for space heating for the Reykjavík area. Local residents also utilize the geothermal energy for heating greenhouses where f lowers and vegetables are grown.

But geothermal energy is also utilized on a smaller scale. One of Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions, the Blue Lagoon, uses wastewater from the adjacent Svartsengi geothermal plant to heat its mineral-rich waters. A similar development, Mývatn Nature Baths, was opened in North Iceland a few years ago, using water from a borehole from the Bjarnarflag geothermal station.

In Reykjavík, hot-water pipes under the shopping streets Laugavegur and Skólavördustígur ensure that the streets are kept free of snow and ice during winter, for the benefit of all. Many homeowners also install underground pipes in their driveways and even up steps leading to their houses, making them snow and ice-free in winter and safer to walk on.

For many Icelanders, a daily visit to a swimming pool is a must. There, especially at certain times of day such as early morning or late afternoon, groups of people meet to discuss life, politics, the weather and more. Indeed, tourists are often surprised by the number of swimming pools in Iceland. Even small towns have a pool, often with hot pots and Jacuzzis as well. All this would not be possible if geothermal energy was not used to heat most of the pools. In many places which have small outdoor swimming pools, such as Bjarnafjördur in West Iceland, a hot spring is used not only as a source for the hot water but also as a natural hot pot.

But geothermal energy is utilized in many ways by industry too. In the western part of the Icelandic suburb of Grafarvogur, PM Recycling is making a name for itself overseas because of the quality of the recycled plastic it produces. “We recycle the plastic surrounding hay bales as well as industrial plastic, trawls and other nylon fishing gear, large sacks and other solid material such as pipes, barrels, containers and hard plastic,” explains Managing Director Haraldur Aikman. “Our finished product acts as raw material for another plastics company that manufactures processed material from our raw material. The major part of our production is exported and has been used in road signs in the UK.”

When asked about the role that geothermal energy plays in the process, Aikman says: “Our access to hot and cold water enables us to dry the material in a much more efficient way than our foreign counterparts can manage. This means that the quality of our product is much better than that from other enterprises, both in our opinion and in the opinion of our customers.”

You can read the remainder of this article in the 2009 winter issue of Iceland Review – IR 47.04. Four times a year the print edition of Iceland Review brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson's latest images of the country's majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe and here to browse through a selection of pages from the current issue.