Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Geothermal to Bailout Iceland

The good 'ol days occurred in 2008: high gas prices, sky-rocketing food and commodities, peak oil fervor and finally, the global economic meltdown that cascaded last fall with Iceland tanking.

Now Iceland is tyring to get back on its feet. The solution? A mammoth geothermal project: a two-mile well drilled into a volcano. Read here.

Beneath the calm landscape, though, Fridleifsson and his crew of geologists, engineers and roughnecks are attempting the Manhattan Project of geothermal energy. The two-mile-deep hole they've drilled into Krafla, an active volcanic crater, is twice as deep as any geothermal well in the world. It's the keystone in an effort to extract "supercritical" water, stuff so hot and under so much pressure that it exists somewhere between liquid and steam. If they can tame this fluid — if it doesn't blow up their drill or dissolve the well's steel lining — and turn it into electricity, it could yield a tenfold increase in the amount of power Iceland can wrest from the land.

Iceland's geological evolution makes it especially well suited to harvesting geothermal energy. The island is basically one big volcano, formed over millions of years as molten rock bubbled up from the seafloor. The porous rock under its treeless plains sponges up hundreds of inches of rain every year and heats it belowground. Using his energy is simply a matter of digging a well, drawing the hot fluid to the surface, and sticking a power plant on top. Then, as power plants go, it's business as usual: Steam spins a turbine that drives a generator, and electricity comes out the other end. More than 50 countries use geothermal power; pretty much anywhere magma and water are within a few miles of the surface is fair game. Iceland ranks 14th in the world for
geothermal resources but is the highest per-capita producer of geothermal power.
It's committed to getting clean power out of the ground.

And commitment is what the rocky country needs right now. Last fall, Iceland ntered a deep economic recession following a financial meltdown. Now, Iceland's economy is down to fishing, metals and its clean, limitless supply of geothermal energy. It's betting heavily on that energy, hoping to someday offload excess electricity to Europe through undersea cables, and Fridleifsson's project is the all-in wager of the game. Many countries dabble in green energy — a solar plant here, a wind farm there — as they try to wean themselves off oil and coal. Iceland, on the other hand, has been making zero-emissions power a reality since the oil shock of the 1970s, when its progressive inhabitants realized that their dependence on imported energy was an economic vulnerability. Fridleifsson's project, once just a scientific experiment, is the most recent expression of that ethos. If the gamble pays off, it could not only catapult
Iceland out of debt but revolutionize renewable-energy efforts around the world.


The IDDP well will dip two and a half miles belowground into a pocket of water heated to 1,100° by a bubble of magma. Water normally exists as steam at this temperature, but the immense pressure of the rock above holds the water in a near-liquid state. Once the water squirts to the surface, it will retain nearly all the energy that heated and compressed it. It is virtually certain that engineers will have to redesign existing heat exchangers to handle the water's heat and potentially corrosive chemistry, but a plant running on naturally occurring supercritical water could churn out up to 500 megawatts, on par with a small nuclear reactor and half of what a large coal plant produces. Unlike these, though, the IDDP's zero-emissions power source will last as long as the Earth's core continues to heat rainwater.

Iceland's geothermal efforts are currently operating at 20 percent capacity. If it exploited the island's full reserves in only the conventional way, it could produce 20 terawatt-hours of electricity per year — about the same as three nuclear reactors. Tap into other supercritical reserves, or drill deeper into existing wells, and Iceland's electric output could be five times that of the U.S., the world's largest producer of geothermal electricity; Iceland is only the size of Kentucky.In 2000, Fridleifsson recruited Wilfred Elders, a professor emeritus of geology at the University of California at Riverside, from retirement to co-lead the IDDP. Geological studies revealed that supercritical water does indeed flow under Iceland, and the six-mile-wide Krafla caldera was the place to go after it. They realized that all they have to do is tap the stuff — and hope that it doesn't destroy the drilling equipment in the

- Brewskie


  1. Iceland can attract energy intensive industries in order to fully exploit its geothermal capacity.

    If we lived in a global economy where there was real free trade China wouldn't be the number one producer of aluminium in the world.

    Iceland would be able to use it's comperative advantage in producing clean, cheap energy. Unfortunately, export led growth and state led capitalism in China is causing the largest environmental crime and mismanagment of resources in history.

  2. It's ironic how many free market-ideologues in the US promote the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism in places like Brazil or China, yet conveniently turn a blind eye to both nations' strong government-intervention in trade policies: Brazil's sky high tariffs and China's quixotic, tit-for-tat tariffs and currency manipulation.