The Rise of Geothermal Energy in Iceland

A hundred years ago, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. However, one day in 1907, an Icelandic farmer accidentally made a game-changing discovery: steam could be taken from a nearby hot spring and transported to his house through a pipe to heat his home. By 1930, this process, which was used to extract geothermal energy, was beginning to gain traction all over the country. By the 1970s, Iceland began implementing renewable developments. Due to its sparse population, the use of renewable energy in Iceland greatly paid off because developing a connected energy grid was very expensive. Fast forward to 2021 and things are very different: Iceland is one of Europe’s richest countries. Much of this transition can be accredited to its use of renewable energy, 25% of which is geothermal. 

Geothermal energy is heat originating from the Earth’s subsurface that is carried to the surface by steam or water. This heat can be released through a variety of geographic reservoirs, including hot springs, geysers, steam vents, and underwater hydrothermal vents. These give off steam or hot water, which can rotate a turbine that activates a generator and produces electricity. 

There are three types of geothermal power plants: flash steam, binary steam, and dry steam. Flash steam power plants are most abundant and use water with temperatures greater than 360 ℉. As the hot water flows upward, some of it turns into steam, which is separated from the water and used for power. Flash steam power plants are considered sustainable since leftover water and steam is pumped back into the reservoir it originated from. Binary steam power plants use relatively cooler water with temperatures of around 225-360 ℉, using the heat to boil a working fluid. This fluid is then vaporized and used to power turbines. Dry steam power plants draw directly from underground steam, which is piped directly into a turbine or generator. 

The widespread use of geothermal energy does not come without cons. High upfront costs of building geothermal power plants, lack of available locations for power plants to be built, and increased risk of earthquakes are all things to consider. But despite the steep cost of building power plants, these plants create jobs that boost economic development. Once the plants are in operation, they provide a low-cost source of energy. Furthermore, the increased risk of earthquakes in areas hosting geothermal power plants is slight. Geothermal power plants are both renewable and stable since they are replenished naturally and are unaffected by a fluctuating climate. Overall, the pros of using geothermal energy outweigh the cons. 

Iceland is known for its beautiful collection of volcanoes and hot springs, which lends it to be a plentiful source of geothermal energy as tectonic plates and volcanic activity push heat from Earth’s core to the surface. Geothermal water is used to heat about 90% of Iceland’s homes. Hot water is cooled and pumped from boreholes (deep holes in the ground often used for drilling) into the taps of surrounding homes. Hot water can also be purified and cooled for use as drinking water. This has several positive implications for the country, including $100 million saved in fossil fuels annually and the total CO₂ release being almost 40% lower. Beyond heating and electricity, geothermal energy in Iceland lends itself to melting snow off of concrete, powering fish farming, heating swimming pools, processing food, and giving rise to tourism in geothermal spas such as the Blue Lagoon. 

However, Iceland is far from reaching its maximum potential for geothermal energy. As of 2008, only about 20% of the geothermal power available for Iceland had been utilized. Since geothermal energy use has only expanded in the last forty years, many of Iceland’s reservoirs have yet to be discovered. It is possible that more than 8% of the world could be powered by this tiny country. If enough geothermal reservoirs are found in certain areas, underwater transmission cables could potentially be built, negating the need for geothermal reservoirs to be built everywhere. 

Iceland is not alone in posessing the natural resources necessary for geothermal energy production and the support of its expansion. A multitude of other countries also fall within a geothermally rich territory, including countries throughout the Pacific Ocean, Africa, and Latin America. In East Africa, the Great East African Rift System is lively with tectonic activity. In 2010, an effort by the UN Environment Programme to increase geothermal investments in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia was launched. Iceland has established itself as a partner and co-financer of this effort. It is also helping to establish the African Geothermal Center of Excellence, which will help train local geothermal engineers, scientists, and drillers. The potential for geothermal energy in Africa is even greater: only 0.6% of Africa’s geothermal potential has been utilized, and it currently provides over 40% of Kenya’s energy. 

Overall, despite a high initial price tag, geothermal energy is a sustainable resource that, after being popularized in Iceland, may have the potential to allow the world to utilize energy for many years to come and create economic growth. Hopefully, the potential of locating and drilling into geothermal resources will not be depleted anytime soon. 


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