Renewable Energy in the Land of Fire and Ice
In order to think big, sometimes you have to start small. Despite boasting a population of merely 334,000 residents, Iceland has quickly positioned itself as a world leader in renewable energy production. Making the most of its precarious positioning along the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, Iceland utilizes its unique topography and geology to generate upwards of 90% of its electricity from renewables. To better understand how this cutting-edge energy infrastructure is made to work, I flew out to Reykjavik to see for myself.
Over the course of eight days, I joined up with engineering, public policy, and natural science students from across the U.S. as part of the GREEN Program’s Iceland expedition. Through a partnership with the Iceland School of Energy at Reykjavik University, we began the week with introductory courses in energy policy, sustainability, hydropower, geology, biofuels, and geothermal energy. What struck me most was the ingenuity of the Icelanders, who have looked beyond obvious resources, like oil or lumber, in favor of more sustainable options. Sitting on a bed of volcanoes and glaciers, Iceland is home to a projected available 59 TWh geothermal and 64 TWh hydropower annually. Donning extra thermal layers, we set out for an action-packed few days.
It might raise some eyebrows that despite ranking 76th globally in energy production, Iceland actually ranks first in production per capita—more than double runner-up Norway. This can be explained by the consumption breakdown, as 77% of all electricity produced is for industrial use. After investing heavily in renewables after the Oil Crisis of the 1970’s, Iceland found itself with more power than needed. Looking for a boost to its GDP, it welcomed energy-intensive heavy industries by offering attractive electricity prices. Today, aluminum smelting accounts for 70% of all industrial power consumption and remains a polarizing issue for locals. In balancing profit and impact, an interesting proposal suggests laying subsea cables to connect Iceland to Europe’s electricity markets, allowing import and export at will. By tapping into this expanded market, coupled with the current cap-and-trade system, Iceland could expand past its borders and power sustainable change.
Beyond the classroom, we took advantage of Iceland’s stunning landscape for some adventurous experiential learning. To build on our lectures, we ventured to an active geothermal plant tucked away in the tundra, Hellisheiði. With thick steam plumes soaring thirty feet high and the smell of sulfur souring the air, the externalities of such a process were made evident. Seeing as 90% of district heating stems from cogeneration geothermal plants, as well as heating for pools, fish farming, and greenhouses, it’s clearly essential to Iceland’s infrastructure. Interestingly, as only pure steam can drive a turbine, runoff water is a chief byproduct of geothermal energy production. So, via a clever marketing effort, the world-famous Blue Lagoon was born, which is really more dump site than natural wonder.
On the exquisite hike to Gullfoss, a hundred-plus-foot multi-tiered waterfall in the southwest, we learned the story of Iceland’s first environmentalist. Born and raised on the Brattholt farm overlooking the falls, Sigridur Tomasdóttir and her sisters relished in the natural beauty of the falls and regularly guided visitors there. In the early 1900’s, foreign financiers managed to secure the land, intending to dam the falls for hydropower production. But Tomasdóttir did not sit idly by. She trekked 75 miles to Reykjavik to lobby for preservation. Fortunately, her passionate appeal succeeded and the hydropower contract was annulled. Looking out over the glistening water and cloudless sky, it struck me that this debate is far from over. Even when it comes to clean energy, there’s always a tradeoff.
Greg participated in the GREEN Program with support from a Kleinman Center student grant.