Harnessing the geothermal natural resources in a sustainable manner

Harnessing the geothermal natural resources in a sustainable manner
The crater-row Eldvörp, which is at the top of a geothermal system situated between Svartsengi and Reykjanes, which are both currently exploited.

Harnessing the geothermal natural resources in a sustainable manner

An article written in relation to the "Iceland Geothermal Conference" that takes place in Reykjavík March 5 to 8 2013:

In Iceland we are proud of our pioneering geothermal energy exploitation. Initially the use was primarily through bathing; schools and swimming pools were built in rural areas where geothermal heat was available. In the 1930s we started heating the hospital and nearby swimming pool in Reykjavík with geothermal water but systematic plumbing of houses did not start until after World War II. Since then, over 90% of our houses in Iceland are heated with geothermal central heating.

Initially the geothermal water used was what is referred to as low temperature (<150oC) and it was plumbed directly for house heating. But in the 1970s we started to harness high temperature fields, Krafla in the North for electricity and Svartsengi in the South for house heating. Because of the high concentration of dissolved solids in high temperature geothermal water (>240oC), it is not appropriate for direct house heating and therefore heat exchange is employed instead where cold ground water is heated for central heating. Three more high temperature systems are now in production in SW Iceland - Nesjavellir, Hellisheiđi and Reykjanes. The first produces electricity and through heat exchange also Reykjavík central heating water. The two latter only produce electricity. These plants therefore only harness 10% of the energy, the rest being wasted as heat into the atmosphere - a wasteful management of energy, a limited resource.

Sogin in the Reykjanes peninsula Sogin in the Reykjanes peninsula, where a new power project is proposed for exploitation.

FutureIceland is concerned that the exploitation of our geothermal systems is not sustainable. We do not agree that 50 years of exploitation potential is sustainable because it will take hundreds of years for the systems to re-heat. In our books, sustainability means lasting forever . The systems on the Reykjanes Peninsula (Svartsengi and Reykjanes) now show hundreds of meters of water table depression and the Reykjanes system has developed a steam cap. Yet the operators of the system are pushing hard for adding further turbines and thus blow more energy out of the system, with unknown consequences. We also deplore that the company that produces energy in the Hengill area (Nesjavellir and Hellisheiđi) does so without separating out pollutants such as H2S (hydrogen sulfide) and the volatile metals arsenic (As) and mercury (Hg). As a result the health of citizens of the Reykjavík area and Hveragerđi are at risk with elevated need for respiratory drugs on days of inversion where the H2S concentrations reach dangerous values, and indeed we can smell sulphur in the atmosphere  all the way to Reykjavík, the capital. Additional problems include earthquakes triggered by reinjection of fluids into the Hellisheiđi system.

Nature is also at risk. Moss and lichen in the Hellisheiđi area and trout in Lake Ţingvallavatn have been demonstrated to contain elevated concentrations of As and Hg, both dangerous metals for people and ecosystems. Furthermore, lichens are indicator species for gaseous pollutants such as H2S and the resultant oxidized product SO2. Significant damage occurs already at low concentrations, indicative of significant ecosystem damage. Large areas of Sweden are at present black-listed for fishing of trout, pike and char because of long term diffuse Hg pollution. If Iceland acquires this problem by being naďve about geothermal pollution, of note is that the recovery times estimated for Sweden once damage has occurred is estimated at ~500 years .

The reason why FutureIceland is putting out this pamphlet is that we are not certain that the information presented here will be made public to the participants of the Iceland Geothermal Conference.  While we support careful exploitation of geothermal resources, we emphasize that the systems are not overexploited, that the use of the energy is maximized and that the operators are responsible enough to extract pollutants from their wastewater and steam. Geothermal exploitation is only sustainable if all widths of sustainability are taken into account:

Nature: careful energy extraction at a rate not exceeding regeneration, pollution prevention;

Economy: maximizing energy use through multi-use, setting up industry to exploit dissolved water and gas constituents, using the heat for growing algae, horticulture and aquaponics, use of energy for advanced manufactured products with a heavy knowledge content, selling the energy at financially sustainable prizes, using the energy for the benefit of Icelanders;

Society: maximizing the energy use for social sustainability in a sub-arctic country, provide society with easy house heating and warm communal baths; leading to

Wellbeing: minimization of health effects, good social relations for present and future generations.

Such activities need to be planned and built at the same time as the geothermal plant so that the energy and the potential benefits for the local economy, society and wellbeing of citizens can be maximized from the start of operations and at the same time nature and ecosystems are protected.

The current optimization of profits for multinational corporations, paying minimized tax in Iceland, with no Icelandic ownership, leaves only small crumbles of the benefits but the whole bulk of the disadvantages for Iceland. The geothermal energy is a national commonly held asset, where the Parliament has obligations to exploit sustainable profits for present Icelanders in a way where this potential is preserved for future and yet unborn Icelanders.

FutureIceland is also concerned about planned exploitation of geothermal systems in the Reykjavík area. All geothermal areas (and hydropower areas) that are under threat are depicted on a map that is accessible on www.framtidarlandid.is/natturukortid (soon to be available in English). The aim is to tap all these systems (and some new hydropower) to gather up enough energy (650 MW) for a single aluminium plant near Keflavík airport. These systems are for the most part situated within nature reserves that are popular outdoor areas for local citizens. We believe that they would be better used through protection - in a concept that we refer to as protection-use.

Many of you may have visited Gullfoss - one of Iceland's most beautiful waterfalls. If the determination of one farmer's daughter - Sigríđur - had not been so strong a century ago to prevent it, we would have harnessed it for energy for decades. Instead all Icelanders and our visitors can enjoy the beauty of Gullfoss and thousands of people experience white water rafting on the river. In the same manner we wish to protect the beauty of the lava fields and craters of the Reykjanes peninsula for our outdoor enjoyment and that of our children and future generations. These areas will continue to count as our enjoyment-dividends through the aforementioned protection-use.

It is a matter of fact, that Iceland has a larger energy potential than the demand for energy in the country. Currently 90% is sold to foreign-owned multinational heavy industry that pays minimal tax in Iceland. FutureIceland thinks enough is enough. It is therefore neither urgent to develop more energy production nor necessary, as Icelandic society already has a production overcapacity at the time of writing. By prioritizing properly, Iceland will be able to provide inexpensive energy for all the country's needs as well as being able to conserve important natural resources for the future . A country that is proud of having a very close relationship with the past 1,200 years of history and Sagas, cannot plan for anything less for the future without ridiculing itself.


FutureIceland, March 4 2013

Setting a date of 50 years, implies in reality the setting of a doomsday date, after which no responsibility for the habitability of the island is taken. May the persons proposing this, be as kind as to identify where the Icelanders are supposed to go when the land is barren of geothermal reseources?

Iceland has obligations under the United Nations Economic Commission Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution protocol (UN/ECE-LRTAP) concerning emissions of sulphur and heavy metals, including As and Hg. Iceland has neither reported on how it plans to comply with these regulations nor reported properly on its emissions status. This issue may be brought up during the next UN/ECE-LRTAP convention meeting in April 2013. The issue will later come up in the Working Group on Effects and the Excecutive Body. Under these regulations Iceland will be obliged to follow the European treaty, and Europe expects Iceland to fulfill its obligations. Iceland will be asked to document how it plans to comply with the regulations.

Extensive research and reports are available on this issue from Sweden. It is well researched and it would be grossly negligent to ignore it. There is thus no room for "uncertainty" talk.

It is important to realize that cables to Europe will bring the electricity price in Iceland up to central European price levels. Despite claims of the opposite, this is exactly what happened in Norway and Sweden. When foreign market fish selling started, such price increases happened to fish for domestic consumption in Iceland.


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