Sustainability | November 3, 2022
Producing Nothing, Changing Everything
With the state of the world in jeopardy due to environmental ignorance, Iceland is taking steps to produce energy and power for the island in a way that does no further damage to the planet. Using steam released from the sea, Icelandians have found a powerful, effective, non-harmful way to fuel their island without the use of fossil fuels or coal, something other countries potentially have the power to do.
What if there was a sustainable way to eradicate large amounts of a country’s energy pollution? Iceland has been doing just that, having no impact on global warming or climate change (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 96). With “almost 100% of the electricity consumed… com[ing] from renewable energy (Logadittor, n.d., par. 1) and 93% of heating systems in all of Iceland running on geothermal energy (Maguire, 2020, p. 25), Iceland significantly minimizes their carbon footprint in relation to other countries, and has been doing so for decades. The country’s primary sources of power are “hydropower and geothermal energy” (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 95), power generated from the use of water and other island resources, while other countries are struggling to find long-term, sustainable sources of energy without the use of fossil fuels. Iceland’s absence of coal completely changes the game for energy sustainability. In this article, the researcher will explore Iceland’s all-natural energy system in the form of heat extraction from seawater that has taken over the island, practically eliminating any ecological harm the country may cause.
The researcher was first introduced to Iceland’s methodology of extracting heat from seawater in Barrett et al. (2020) Down to Earth with Zac Efron series on Netflix. Throughout the series, actor Zac Efron and author Darin Olien travel the world, learning about how several countries are taking action to find sustainable solutions to save the planet, many of which include using their own resources. In the first episode, upon travelling to Iceland, viewers are introduced to a country with virtually no ecological footprint. Efron visits the Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant, where they and the viewers are introduced to this revolutionary process.
The process of extracting steam from the heat of seawater begins deep in the sea floor. Tectonic plates, areas prone to volcanic action, often shift, creating volcanoes underwater to heat the water upon eruption; using drills, the volcanic pressure is released, heating the water upon this release and transforming into steam (Maguire, 2020, p. 32). Once extracted through borehole houses, this natural steam releases, feeding into “heat pump excavators” (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 100), typically made of metal or plastic (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 101), materials less prone to erosion. The steam then feeds into a rotor, where it turns the rotor blades and creates electricity (Efron et al., 2020). This mechanical heat exchanger converts heat from the ocean into a viable energy source that “suppl[ies] thermal energy” (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 101), providing energy to residents across the island. In Down to Earth, geologists Marta Ros Karlsdottir and Sandra Osk Snaebjornsdottir walk viewers through the plant showing the various steps of their sustainable power plant; however, there’s more than simply taking the steam. At the end of the steam extraction process, there may be harmful gases that cannot be released into the atmosphere. Snaebjornsdottir explains how some gases are returned to the Earth: “Here at this plant, we are taking most of the gases [carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide] and re-injecting them into the rock, where it mineralizes, so it forms rocks” (Barrett et al., 2020). Borehole drills re-inject these gases 2000m back down, Efron describing the process of returning excess back into the Earth: “[The steam] chemically fuses to the porous rock below the Earth’s surface, and solidifies, so it never gets a chance to harm the atmosphere” (Barrett et. al, 2020). However, there are many safety precautions that must be taken in order for a successful extraction.
This “utilization of sea” (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 96) ensures environmental safety when done properly. Geologists face challenges with steam extraction, and must consider many external variables including air, velocity, and the ocean’s current” (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 100). The direction of the ocean influences the water’s temperature. With the natural current, heat is often pushed towards the Atlantic (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 100), meaning geologists must be skillful with their drill sites. Drilling into tectonic plates is a risky job. Improper drill extraction or drilling too often can lead to unwanted seismic activity, jeopardizing the entire operation (Maguire, 2020, p. 32). There’s also the added risk of human intervention, or damaging the landscape (Maguire, 2020, p. 27). Geologists however have determined where and how often to drill into the volcanic rock, minimizing the chances of a disturbance.
Though the method is well-planned and researched, drilling into volcanic rock has raised the eyebrows of some scientists. Releasing the pressure from this rock may cause the release of unwanted chemicals, particularly arsenic. Arsenic gives water a high pH, making it potentially dangerous for not only consumption, but extraction (Weaver, Hoque, Amin, Markusson, & Butler, 2019, 1744). The plants dilute and filter water in order to rid it of arsenic and other potentially harmful contaminants by regularly measuring the pH levels in areas that have the potential to experience water with a higher acidity (Weaver et al., 2019, p. 1750). With the production of an excellent aquifer system that easily contains and dilutes arsenic to safe levels for steam extraction, the geothermal energy remains uncompromised (Weaver et al., 2019, p. 1752), though it is probably best you don’t drink it. Despite these potential risks, the geothermal energy provides many uses to the island’s residents.
The rotors, also called turbines, possess a great deal of power. It is estimated that 1 turbine can produce 45 megawatts of electricity alone, enough to power 450,000 homes (Barrett et al., 2020). This power is incredibly useful for much more than simply maintaining a home. At the Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant, we see steam energy being used to charge electric cars, another way of reducing their ecological footprint (Efron et al., 2020). For residents, this power can also be used to “melt snow off sidewalks, heat swimming pools, power fish farming, greenhouse cultivation, food production” (Logadottir, n.d., para. 4), as well as other material production sites.
As environmentally-friendly as this energy creation process may be, it was not originally created with the purpose of saving the environment. In their geographical isolation, Iceland had relied on imported oil in order to sustain the country’s energy needs (Logadottir, n.d., par. 5). Around 1930, Iceland began looking into alternative energy sources for self-sufficiency in order to eliminate the pricey importation costs, thus turning to their own resources (Maguire, 2020, p. 25) This may seem crazy, especially to Albertans whose economy relies heavily on the oil industry.
However, using the ocean as a heat source significantly reduced Iceland’s energy costs while being incredibly energy efficient; although, there is the occasional need of electricity to reach the proper temperature for water extraction, falling around 60-90 degrees celsius (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 96). Grimur Bjornsson, the head engineer at Reykjavik Energy in Iceland, notes how such a process is theoretically affordable, as it saves government money and gives its residents proper, naturally-produced heat (Maguire, 2020, p. 26). It was not easy for the government to see this, in fact the economic debate has continued for years, its peak in the 2000s.
During that time, the government was run by a strongly liberal party who was against private ownership of large companies, and they ignored the option of the plants providing geothermal energy since there were few companies at that point (Maguire, 2020, p. 28-9). Iceland already experiences debt: The country is playing catch-up from the creation of their extraction method, since they are limited in how much drilling they can do and the lack of government appeal (Maguire, 2020). However, the values of the Icelandians heavily influence this process, allowing for economic growth to be a slow and steady process that more and more residents are getting on board with.
The residents of Iceland value camaraderie throughout their land that emphasizes the relationship between the land and the welfare of citizens, making their process of hydropower and geothermal energy a strong cause. Using natural ocean water is a sustainable, clean energy source that is plentiful and economically viable (Eskafi et al., 2019, p. 96). With Iceland being described as “a leading example of the sustainable use of indigenous energy resources” (Maguire, 2020, p. 25), it encourages other countries to embark on the same path, not to mention the exposure through Down to Earth.
Snaebjornsdottir remarks how the process of heat extraction from seawater “could be done elsewhere” (Barrett et al., 2020), meaning it’s possible other islandic countries or coastal locations could reduce their environmental impact in the same way. The process continues to be researched in terms of engineering, mechanics, and technology, and Icelandian geologists show no signs of slowing down. Iceland’s ecological footprint is practically nothing, a great step in the direction of saving the planet.