By nixing coal, Iceland grabs green with geothermal heat

October 21, 2016 by Blaine Friedlander, Cornell University
Icelandic engineer Thorleikur Johannesson explains Iceland's historic backstory for abandoning coal in favor of the greener geothermal agency. Credit: Robert Barker/Cornell Marketing Group

As Cornell considers geothermal heat to warm its campus, Icelandic engineer Thorleikur Johannesson told the story of how his country abandoned coal and set standards to achieve blue-ribbon blue skies in an Oct. 16 visit to Cornell.

In his keynote talk, "The Potential of Geothermal Energy: Lessons From Iceland," Johannesson showed images of a grungy, sooty Reykjavik shrouded in smog. By the late 1930s, Iceland was beginning to change from heating with coal to tapping into Earth's natural hot water. Scuttling coal removed the grime from Icelandic streets and restored the beauty of the country's azure skies.

Johannesson said 85 percent of Iceland's annual energy comes from domestic, renewable resources. Hydropower there produces about 71 percent of the country's electricity and about 29 percent. In a country of 330,000 people, residential housing consumes only about 5 percent of the electricity.

Today the geothermal energy system is fully developed in Reykjavik, its suburbs and throughout small towns in Iceland, as virtually all residential homes are heated this way. "It was street-by-street, house-by-house, and we did it. Some people take it for granted, as it hasn't always been like this. It took 90 something years to get where we are," Johannesson said.

"Most of the politicians in Iceland – and I mean most of them – have been pro-geothermal, and we think it is important to have the politics on our side," he said.

After Johannesson spoke, panelists Jeff Tester, the Croll Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems in the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; KyuJung Whang, vice president for infrastructure, properties and planning; and Todd Cowen, professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Kathy Dwyer Marble and Curt Marble Faculty Director for Energy at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, spoke about researching geothermal energy for Cornell.

Tester said this country needs to adopt an Icelandic approach to integrate geothermal and other renewable sources to produce a clean energy economy while reconstructing America's infrastructure.

Referencing Cornell's recent Senior Leaders Climate Action Group report on achieving campus by 2035, Whang said, Earth Source Heat is one of several options being examined for carbon neutrality. Each option carries a cost, he explained. Further, it would be difficult for the university to ultimately attain carbon neutrality by keeping the status quo, and continuing to use and other fossil fuels.

Iceland's achievements impress Whang. "We're able to see how much work the Icelandic people have done to heat their entire country… to think that you can heat an entire nation this way is mind-boggling to me," he said.

During the panel discussion, Cowen noted that Cornell's Combined Heat and Power Plant uses natural gas as a bridge to future energy sources, and methane leakage – at the source – remains a problem. "… moving away from natural gas is important. The goal is to get off of it as rapidly as possible," Cowen said. "We've got a campus that is in the process of engaging all aspects, all academic units, the social sciences, the economists, the business school," said Cowen. "There is no better place to be than Cornell to lead the country into these future energy spaces and see how we're going to get there."

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1 / 5 (7) Oct 21, 2016
The West has much of the geothermal potential in the US, and we need more applications. But it is probably Japan which is losing out, investing in dangerous nuclear powerplants instead of using what is natural.
3 / 5 (4) Oct 21, 2016
"using what is natural", nuclear power is natural. Earth's core is radioactive and exothermic and gives origin to geothermal energy sources.
"The geothermal energy of the Earth's crust originates from the original formation of the planet (20%) and from radioactive decay of materials (80%)."
3 / 5 (4) Oct 21, 2016
"If you are anti-carbon dioxide and anti-nuclear, you are pro-blackout." - Robert Bryce
"Fluids drawn from the deep earth carry a mixture of gases, notably carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), methane (CH4) and ammonia (NH3)."
"In addition to dissolved gases, hot water from geothermal sources may hold in solution trace amounts of toxic chemicals, such as mercury, arsenic, boron, antimony, and salt."
1.5 / 5 (8) Oct 21, 2016
I wonder about the capital and operational costs of geothermal power. Watts Bar II just went online, a nuke plant costing over $4,000/kW capital cost only, having large operational costs and no proven way to even store the high-level nuclear waste it will generate. We will have to find a way to store those thousands of tons of it for about 200,000 years.

No police state is required for geothermal plants like we have for nukes.
3 / 5 (4) Oct 21, 2016
No police state is required for geothermal plants...
"Geothermal has become infamous for causing earthquakes as setting up of geothermal power plants can alter the land's structure. A process called hydraulic fracturing is an integral part for building a large scale and efficient geothermal system power plants that can trigger earthquakes."
"There is always a danger of eruption of volcano."
"There is no guarantee that the amount of energy which is produced will justify the capital expenditure and operations costs."
"It may release some harmful, poisonous gases that can escape through the holes drilled during construction."
"Only few sites have the potential of Geothermal Energy."
3 / 5 (2) Oct 28, 2016
isn't Geothermal just stealing the Earth's heat from future generations and hastening the end of life on our planet ???

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