November 20 2008
Drive around Iceland's capital city of Reykjavik on any cold night and look at the houses and apartment buildings lining the streets. The first thing you may notice is how many windows are wide open, allowing the frigid outdoor air to mix with the warm indoor heat. In most places, the scene may seem a bit strange. But in a city that hosts the world's largest geothermal district heating system, it's a normal occurrence.
"We go beyond just energy. We use it to promote tourism, we use it for health and wellness, we use it for heavy industries and we also use it for educational purposes."
-- Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, President of Iceland
“Energy is cheap and it's abundant. We don't have any shortages so we do tend to leave our lights on and our windows open. It's not something we think about as much,” says Hannes Pálsson, a resident of Reykjavik.
One generation ago, Icelanders didn't have the luxury of passively thinking about their energy use. The isolated island country imported all of its coal and oil for heat and electricity, putting it in a very vulnerable position. But now the country gets 99 percent of its electricity and 78 percent of its primary energy from hydro and geothermal resources. While many Icelanders have watched this dramatic evolution of the country's energy landscape, there are just as many young citizens who have grown up not understanding Iceland's formerly delicate position. (Image, left: The Hellisheidi Power Plant sends plumes of steam into the sky on a rare calm morning in Iceland.)
“I'm not from the generation that grew up with anything else but [geothermal and hydro],” says the 31-year old Palsson. “It's ubiquitous, it's everywhere and we know about it. But I think we also take it for granted. Still, we are proud of what we have done.”
Now Iceland has the opportunity to share that pride with other countries. And leaders in the industry are more than happy to share their knowledge.
“We have much to offer in know-how and technological support,” says Iceland's President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, speaking on the Inside Renewable Energy podcast. “It is important for us to continue to establish relationships with countries that are serious about geothermal. As a leader, Iceland can help in many areas.”
To hear more from Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and a line-up of geothermal experts in the country, listen to this week's Inside Renewable Energy podcast. The show features an audio collage that examines the Icelandic geothermal experience.
This spirit of cooperation is part of the Icelandic culture, says Albert Albertsson, Deputy CEO of Hitaveita Sudurnesja, the owner and operator of two large geothermal plants in the country. If world leaders are going to get serious about combating climate change — a problem that is already visibly altering the weather and glacial landscape of the country — Icelanders believe it's important to export the lessons they have learned over the last 70 years. (Image, right: The Strokkur geyser blows its top, illustrating Iceland's very active geology.)
“We work very openly. All our research and development is open to the international society — so in that way we contribute a lot to understand better how we can harness this extremely valuable resource,” says Albertsson.
One important lesson to learn from Iceland, says President Grímsson, is to think about utilizing geothermal in multiple ways — not just for heat and electricity. The Icelandic government and geothermal businesses have worked very hard to use the resource to create as many value streams as possible.
“We go beyond just energy. We use it to promote tourism, we use it for health and wellness, we use it for heavy industries and we also use it for educational purposes. This more interactive, holistic approach is much different than we see elsewhere,” says Grimsson.
These additional value streams will be more important for Iceland as the country begins a potentially long, painful recession due to the global credit crunch. That makes a renewed focus on the domestic geothermal industry and an aggressive approach to exporting Icelandic knowledge that much more important, says Pálsson. (Image, below: A frigid morning at the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.)
“One of the things that keeps us positive is our access to energy — the fact that we can do so much with it and the fact that we know so much about it. I definitely believe that we should be exporting our knowledge all over the world,” he says.
With the door closing on Iceland's economy, perhaps geothermal energy will allow Icelanders to keep the window of opportunity open and keep the country moving during these tough times.