Alternative Energy in Iceland: Breaking Petroleum’s Grip on Our World
By Jim Reynoldson
“Volcano Rips Hole in Iceland,” warned one headline.
On March 20, 2010 – just weeks before I was scheduled to arrive in Iceland on vacation – an eruption began under the Eyjafjallajokull Glacier, about 78 miles east of Reykjavik.
As I watched the television footage of the glowing fissure, the growing anticipation for my Icelandic vacation became tinged with some anxiety, and even more respect, for the power of nature in this land of energy.
“Energy”… in a word, this is what had intrigued me about Iceland in the first place. Not just the raw natural powers of the island itself, but the innovative and progressive strategies Icelanders are developing for harnessing that energy.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, energy-related stories dominated the news. Debate over climate change legislation, another eruption in Iceland (its ash shutting down air travel in much of Europe for several days), and the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico…
The common thread is energy – how it impacts us and our environment, how we harvest it (and the consequences thereof), and how we will regulate it.
When it comes to energy, Iceland is ahead of the curve in many ways. Blessed with massive geothermal power potential beneath their very feet, Icelanders have managed to build an infrastructure that generates nearly all its heat and electricity from renewable energy sources (both hydro-power and geothermal sources).
Not satisfied with this feat, Iceland also hopes to retrofit its transportation and industrial infrastructures to become as free as possible from petroleum’s grip in coming decades.
As I watched the tragic images of the Gulf oil spill’s impact on flora, fauna, and fishermen alike, the thought of one day breaking petroleum’s grip on our world became increasingly appealing. I couldn’t wait to touch down in Iceland to learn more!
From the moment of arrival in Iceland, you are surrounded by energy and evidence of energy past. The Reykjanes Peninsula – where international flights arrive at Keflavik Airport – is awash in sea of moss-topped lava fields.
A landscape shaped like ocean waves and shaped by Iceland’s extreme volcanic activity is the first hint at the power beneath the nation’s surface. While the recent eruption had decided to calm down (for the most part) just a week before our arrival, Iceland’s ever-present geothermal energy abounded.
The world-famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is located in the midst of these lava fields, and is in fact the runoff water from the Svartsengi geothermal power plant – water whose heat after being drawn from 6500 feet underground is used to power steam turbines to provide for domestic heat and hot water.
On top of that, minerals drawn up in the process (such as silica) have been shown to have positive medicinal benefits for skin conditions like psoriasis, so the Blue Lagoon has produced high-end skin products sold worldwide.
Being mmersed in the warm, turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon is an excellent way to unwind after a long flight – and my girlfriend (Stacy) and I took a couple of hours to decompress, surrounded by lava rocks and soft, white silica mud squishing between our toes.
Just east of the Blue Lagoon is the Krisuvik geothermal area – a remote collection of bubbling mud pots and steam vents. Hillside soil stained in bright reds and oranges from minerals are connected by boardwalks, providing another vivid example of the energy surrounding us.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle area spreading northeast of Reykjavik is also alive with geothermal and hydro energy. The Geysir geothermal area – with the Strokkur geyser erupting faithfully and dramatically every few minutes – is a landscape dotted with boiling, steaming fumaroles.
The stench of sulfur was particularly strong here, a byproduct of geothermal energy throughout Iceland (but well worth the odor).
The enormous, stair-stepping Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) is a stark reminder of the intense hydroelectric potential of Iceland’s rivers. More than 80% of Iceland’s electricity is generated from hydroelectric power.
Given the abundance of both water and volcanic activity (the recent Eyjafjallajokull eruption occurred just southeast of this area), several geothermal power plants are located in this region, including Nesjavellir and visitor-friendly Hellisheidi plants.
With a sleek, stylish design, the Hellisheidi Power Plant’s visitor center has state-of-the-art multimedia displays that are informative and interactive. Flow charts illustrate the efficiency of geothermal power in which electricity is generated in two different ways (steam used to power turbines both directly and indirectly – from separated water).
Additionally, cold water is pumped from the ground and heated via steam condenser and heat exchanger mechanisms to produce hot water for use by consumers, with some cool water being pumped back into the initial extraction point to be heated again, completing a circuit. The Hellisheidi Power Station web site provides more detailed information on the process.
The earthquake simulator rumbles the entire building in response to user selections of various quake scales (This one is sure to be a hit with the kids!).
Just up the road from the Hellisheidi facility, the town of Hveragerdi has some unexpected strategies for tapping into its active geothermal zone –- a strip of steaming fumaroles that follow the hillside right down into town.
A series of greenhouses use not only sunlight (something Iceland has nearly round-the-clock in Summer), but heat from the steam fields piped in to help grow produce (including bananas) completely unlikely this far north.
An incredibly unique restaurant in Hveragerdi (Kjot & Kunst, located at Breidumork 21) even taps into the steam field as a heat source for “earth cooking”. Owned by Olafur Reynisson, Kjot & Kunst was featured on the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.”
While the method may be bizarre (this may be the only existing restaurant to use it), the results are delicious. Stacy & I dined on an assorted array of steam-cooked meats and potatoes, topped off by a piece of “candy cake” (the desserts here are also fantastic!).
Pompeii of the North
The Westman Islands are sprinkled off the south coast of Iceland, and appear as emerald-topped gems with lava-rock foundations. These are among the youngest islands in the world – in fact, one of the islands (Surtsey) did not exist until a cooling undersea lava flow began to form it in 1963.
Known as “Pompeii of the North,” the small town of Heimaey (on the island of the same name, and the only settlement on the Westman Islands) lost about 400 buildings to a 1973 eruption’s lava flow. In addition, the lava poured into the fishing capital’s vital harbor and cooled – reducing its size.
The peaceful, friendly town of Heimaey (which also has its own geothermal plant) is simultaneously at peace and in conflict with the lava fields created by nature’s fury along the east edge of town.
On the one hand, this hallowed ground has trails bordered by wildflowers and picnic tables overlooking the town and harbor – with views of the two volcanic peaks (Helgafell and Eldfell – from whence the destruction spewed).
On the other hand, street signs placed above the lava seem to reclaim the sense of place – and in fact, many of the buried homes have begun to be dug out in a modern-day archaeological site.
Stacy & I were treated more like guests than customers at Viking Tours, and the accompanying Café Kro (Sudurgerdi 4, down by the harbor). Over lunch, we were shown a fascinating documentary about the volcanic history of the Westman Islands.
Then we were off on a driving tour of Heimaey – our young, witty guide (Unnar Gisli) sharing every imaginable detail of the islands’ history and local character.
Our favorite local legend was a story of the town mayor scrambling to show off the famous “lava bread” (still cooked today in the hot soil of Eldfell’s crater) to the Finnish Prime Minister on an official visit.
Having forgotten to place the dough in time, the mayor bought a loaf from the local bakery to preserve appearances and planted it in the ground just in the nick of time to save the day… or so he thought, until the bread was unearthed and presented to the Prime Minister – already sliced.
The Real Iceland
The rest of our journey took us across much of southern Iceland and then back to Reykjavik – where we stayed at the Roro Cody guesthouse (Sogavegur 152). Just outside of the downtown area – yet easily accessible by car and bus alike – we were once again treated more as guests than customers. The price for this comfortable accommodation was one of the most reasonable in Reykjavik – and Roro was a charming hostess.
The kindness of the Icelandic people was evident throughout the trip, and the landscape had been forgiving as well. A small stretch of road was being rebuilt where flooding from the recent eruption had threatened a bridge along the Ring Road (Iceland’s main highway), and wind-swept ash did make the visibility a bit hazy in this area.
To be clear, though, Iceland was not heavily impacted by this latest eruption. Worldwide media had painted a much gloomier picture than the vivid reality before our eyes (a source of frustration expressed to us by those we spoke to in Iceland’s tourism industry).
Far from the volcanic wasteland it had been made out to be, our experience of Iceland was one of thundering waterfalls, stunning green hillsides, and massive glaciers (along with the amazingly beautiful Jokulsarlon iceberg lagoon, where bits of glacier end their life cycle in brilliant whites and blues against the black volcanic beaches).
And, yes, volcanoes. None of this beauty would be possible without the sometimes destructive, but often productive, power of Iceland’s natural energy.
Jim Reynoldson is a freelance writer and an avid traveler in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.