Oct 1, 2014

From Beneath the Earth

5 min
In an article published this July, The New York Times called geothermal energy “the forgotten renewable.” The article points to a...

In an article published this July, The New York Times called geothermal energy “the forgotten renewable.”

The article points to a report out from the Geothermal Enregy Association that examines the geothermal situation both in the U.S. and abroad. Ultimately, the report concluded that while the U.S. is lagging on harnessing geothermal energy, the international market is “booming.” It reports that more than 700 geothermal projects are underway in 76 countries.

16 of those projects are underway in the small island nation of Iceland, a pioneer in the use of geothermal energy. The idyllic country is known for its vast mountains and glaciers, is also known for its extremely active geothermal profile.

Iceland has found a way to harness the power of the earth, with nearly 25 percent of the country’s total electricity generation coming from geothermal. What places Iceland in a prime position to utilize geothermal energy, what are they doing currently, and what are their plans for the future?

Location, Location, Location

Much of Iceland’s relationship with geothermal energy comes down to one factor: location. Iceland is, geologically, a very young country. Straddling the Mid-Atlantic ridge, one of the Earth’s major fault lines, Iceland is one of the few countries where one can see the active spreading of the ridge above sea level. The two tectonic plates—the North American and Eurasian plates—move apart at a rate of about 2 cm per year.

In general, Iceland is active tectonically. Iceland also more than 200 volcanoes and 30 of them have erupted since the country was initially settled. Iceland is also frequently hit with Earthquakes, though never suffers any substantial damage from them. The country is littered with geothermal hotspots, and currently, there are more than 600 known hot springs.

In Iceland, there are high and low temperature zones, depending on their location and proximity to the active volcanic zones. High temperature zones are located in the volcanic zones and mostly on high ground. In these zones, water follows the boiling point curve, with the highest recorded at 386̊ C. The low temperature zones are located outside of the active volcanic zones and can be seen as hot springs or warm rains.

This unique location affords Iceland unfettered access to some of the world’s most active geological areas and they are more certainly making use of it.

Geothermal as a Hot Commodity

In 2013, geothermal energy was used for a number of different purposes, both on an industrial and consumer-facing level. While the majority of usage is comprised of electricity generation (40 percent) and space heating (43 percent), others such as fish farming and snow melting remain vitally important.

That wasn’t always the case, though.

Until the early twentieth century, geothermal in Iceland was used exclusively for bathing, laundry, and cooking. While no longer exclusive, those facets of life are still powered by geothermal in an almost entirely sustainable manner. Heating greenhouses is still a vital part of Iceland’s food economy, since geothermal is used to disinfect the soil.

Other direct utilizations include the manufacture of seaweed, production of salt, and cooking.

The niche that geothermal has really filled, though, is in electricity generation. Even for a country with fewer than 330,000 people, electricity is still in high demand. Thankfully, as demand has risen, so has supply, thanks in part to the harnessing of geothermal. In the late 1970s, geothermal began to slowly make its way into the Icelandic mainstream energy market. It wasn’t until almost 2007 that growth took off exponentially. Three new geothermal facilities got the country to its 2012 levels, in which the country produced 4,600 GWh, or 24.5 percent of the country’s total electricity production.

Iceland isn’t exactly a huge consumer of electricity, but its aluminum consumes the most by far. Accounting for 68.4 percent of the country’s energy consumption, the industry used more than 12,000 GWh in 2013. The next closest consumer is the ferrosilicon industry, accounting for 8.7 percent of electricity consumption at less than 2000 GWh.

Almost all of electricity, some 99 percent, is produced from renewable sources, though the potential for geothermal in Iceland is still relatively untapped. 

"It's been estimated that by conventional use of geothermal, the available power in Iceland could be on the order of 20 to 30 terawatt-hours per year," Ólafur Flóvez, general director of ÍSOR, or Iceland Geosurvey, told Scientific American. "Currently we're producing maybe four terawatt-hours per year."

The country is attracting industrial attention, though. American aluminum giant Alcoa is investing heavily in Iceland and Microsoft and Google have expressed interest in Iceland as well.

While Iceland’s geothermal present looks relatively conventional, it’s the future that is more than just steam.

Powering the Future

The next step for Iceland is to make geothermal energy more widely accessible and keep its focus squarely on sustainability. Iceland’s National Energy Authority (Orkustofnun) has developed a plan to keep production feasible and avoid doing things in excess. Calling it “stepwise development.” The approach involves estimating the size of the next development step once one has been completed. This will help curb drilling and exploration costs.
The Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) is also looking for new sources of geothermal energy deeper in the earth. In 2009, they found molten lava more than a mile underground. Now, they have been able to convert the lava to energy.

Professor emeritus of geology at University of California, Riverside, told The Conversation that this could be a major breakthrough for Iceland, noting that “drilling into magma is a very rare occurrence, and this is only the second known instance anywhere in the world.”

“Essentially, IDDP-1 is the world’s first magma-enhanced geothermal system, the first to supply heat directly from molten magma,” Elders continued. “This could lead to a revolution in the energy efficiency of high-temperature geothermal projects in the future.”

Not all are thrilled, however. As Iceland begins to export geothermal energy and both Canadian- and U.K-based companies begin to move in, the locals are divided on whether to keep the power homegrown, or foster international growth. As more focus is being placed on the geothermal industry in Iceland, keeping foreign investors out may be a difficult task.

Already, it would seem, the day has come where geothermal isn’t the “forgotten renewable” after all—both in Iceland and beyond. 

Share article

Most popular

This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.
Jul 29, 2021

Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030

Dominic Ellis
4 min
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades says the UK's National Infrastructure Commission

Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission

Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.

The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.

The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture. 

It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.  

The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020. 

Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.

The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.

While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.

Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.

Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse. 

"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.

“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.” 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets. 

Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.  

Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."

McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:

  • Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
  • Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
  • Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
  • Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
  • The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere

Share article

Most popular

This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.