Ecology, Europe

Bubbling with energy

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With its vast hydropower and geothermal resources, Iceland is drawing envious looks from the rest of Europe. 

 

For locals relaxing in the famous Blue Lagoon spring just outside Reykjavik, sustainable energy comes without compromises. The lagoon’s warm, natural, bacteria-free seawater, sourced from two kilometres underground, is partly why Iceland’s 300,000 residents can afford Europe’s highest energy consumption per capita and still be among the most eco-friendly places on earth. And, if you wondered, the resources are far from running out.

The country’s unusual ecology is owed to its location over the Mid-Atlantic ridge, a rift along the Atlantic seafloor where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates – the shells covering the earth’s surface – meet and friction. This creates a steam-filled underground zone in which water is boiled to a temperature of around 250˚C, which is why Iceland has 600 hot springs, 200 active volcanoes – of which 30 have erupted since the country settled – and the occasional earthquake (though these are rarely of serious nature).

It also explains how tourists can enjoy places such as the Blue Lagoon, where six million litres of naturally heated water forms a geothermal-powered luxury spa, surrounded by volcanic rocks, snow-covered mountain tops and a layer of mystical mist rising from the water.

Iceland has wasted no time in making use of these natural advantages. After its geothermal resources, its biggest energy form is hydropower, tapped from the many glacial rivers and waterfalls. It supplies as much as 75 per cent of Iceland’s electricity and, with geothermal heating providing the remaining quarter, the entire electrical consumption is sourced domestically and sustainably. It’s a feat few can equal.

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Its residents benefit directly. Much of the geothermal energy goes directly into the heating of residential buildings, with water being pumped up, cooled if necessary, then channelled to homes. Overall it powers 90 per cent of Iceland’s houses, with around nine per cent heated by electricity and one per cent by oil. And while those are impressive figures, the government is aiming to increase the number of geothermal-powered houses to 92 per cent.

This resource also helps Iceland’s many industries. Countless of public and private swimming pools thrive off the natural hot water, as do greenhouses, fish farms, fish dryers and even seaweed manufacturers. In Reykjavik, the capital, where roughly two thirds of the country’s population is based, a geothermal-powered snow melting system have been installed below streets across areas totalling of 690,000 square metres, split equally across public, private and commercial premises.

Iceland’s more popular tourist destinations also benefit. On Reykjavik’s south-west coast you can find Nauthólsvík, an artificial beach where warm water is pumped into the cold sea to create swimming and sailing conditions. It is free, with the temperature staying close to 20˚C during opening hours. Like the mentioned Blue Lagoon, it has been given the Blue Flag, an award issued by the Foundation for Environmental Education that recognises management of coastal and inland water environments that respects the local ecology.

Despite Iceland’s excellence at renewable energy however, the Icelandic government knows that further improvement is crucial – both geologically and financially. The transport and fishing sectors are currently the biggest problems; the island has one of the highest car fleets per capita in Europe, while fishing remains a key industry. Both rely heavily on fossil fuels and together take up 90 per cent of the country’s carbon emissions. What is more, Iceland gets all such fuels from imports, a reluctant investment that makes up 10 per cent of its total import expenditure.

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Biodiesel has emerged as one solution, with experiments centring on producing it domestically from animal fat and vegetable oil. Projects are also underway to invest in the electric car industry and thus capitalising on the huge hydropower reserves. Successful tests have been made with hydrogen buses, passenger cars and even an auxiliary motor on a whale watching ship.

There are also plans in place to exploit more of Iceland’s remaining energy potential. Estimates say a fourth of its resources have been used, and although the government wants to protect parts of it, meaning the available part is practically on around 40 to 50 per cent, it is still a much-prized asset.

Iceland’s potential has gone home to other energy-stricken countries. The country held talks with Britain this summer about supplying low-carbon energy through voltage cables across the ocean floor. In October, car manufacturer BMW moved its high performance computing from Germany to a data centre in Keflavik; powered by renewable energy to save around 3,600 tonnes of carbon emissions per year. Elsewhere, Icelandic energy firms are striking out deals with companies on the lookout for partners to solve their energy problems.

All that may be a trend to be continued across Europe as global energy demands continue to outstrip supplies, and the effects of the EU’s carbon emission trading scheme starts to kick in. For the people of Iceland however, such worries are far from reality yet.

Photos: Justin Black, Katerina Sysoeva, Naten [all via Shutterstock.com].

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