Iceland: where energy comes naturally

Drilling into magma to use as a heat source sounds like the stuff of science fiction. Yet it’s precisely what Iceland aims to do. The islanders have exploited their unique renewable energy sources for decades. Now the land of ice and fire is keen to share its expertise with the rest of the world, says Nótt Thorberg, Director of Green by Iceland.

Iceland is a country of spectacular contrasts.

It’s the world’s largest green energy producer per capita – yet its population stands at just under 379,000.

Renowned for its glaciers, magnificent rivers and waterfalls and untamed coastlines, it is also home to some of the world’s most active volcanoes.

This fascinating geology has helped create several unique sources of renewable energy which – when combined with the Icelanders’ knack for ingenuity – mean the country punches well above its weight as a sustainability leader.

For instance, hydropower and geothermal generates 100% of Iceland’s domestic electricity, while geothermal heating is the norm in its towns and far-flung communities.

Journey’s start

Iceland’s determined drive for self-sufficiency has powered its modern sustainability journey from the start.

Nótt explains, “Back in the 1200s, local historians documented bathing in hot springs. These natural resources have been part of our way of life for centuries.

“But we are also no strangers to adversity, and the first decisive steps towards local, cleaner alternative energy sources were made during urbanisation in the early 1900s.

“Oil and coal were in short supply because of the First World War, and the focus was on making best use of local sustainable resources.

“In the early days, Italy was generating electricity by geothermal, and we tried to follow suit … unsuccessfully at first.

“But entrepreneurship is the spirit of Iceland, and instead it was realised that our homes could be heated directly by geothermal.

“What started out as a few farmers experimenting with diverting hot spa water into their homes has taken huge steps forward.

“We started learning simply by doing and going through bold testing phases. Forward thinking is one of our most valuable assets, particularly in times of crisis.

“Early implementation of those technologies laid the path for the very foundations we stand on today.

“The 1970s oil crisis produced another big wave of innovation, when geothermal central heating systems were rolled out across the country.

“Iceland is a small country, but that’s also part of our strength. Our communities are very good at working together sustainably and responsibly to preserve our beautiful landscapes and the wonderful nature we’re blessed with.”

Today, 85% of Iceland’s primary energy production is met through renewables – the highest in Europe – although transportation is reliant on fossil fuels for now.

The aim is to become fossil fuel free and achieve carbon neutrality by 2040.

Green by Iceland

Green by Iceland is a commercial platform for cooperation on climate issues and green solutions between Iceland and international partners.

Inspired by a Danish initiative, and funded by the government and private enterprise, the initiative was launched in 2019.

Making Iceland carbon neutral is the platform’s overarching aim, but Green by Iceland’s forum of scientists, innovators and engineers also want to share their expertise and knowledge with the rest of the world.

“Reducing carbon emissions and reaching carbon neutral goals is an incremental process for any country, including Iceland,” Nótt points out.

“We can set ambitious goals, but all the necessary activities must be coordinated for each sector and at national level.

“Our platform is designed to enhance dialogue and help partners work stronger together to create a better overview of what’s going on.”

Iceland’s green expertise lies in five main areas:

  • Geothermal, including cascading uses for different applications such as high-tech farming, industries and more.
  • Hydropower, such as the design, build and maintenance of large-scale power stations.
  • Carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS), a rapidly evolving process to remove CO2 emissions from source.
  • Power transmissions systems, specifically to withstand harsh conditions and natural hazards, using environmentally friendly, low impact designs.
  • Green transformation and collaboration.

Green by Iceland has already formed strong partnerships in Germany and North America, but as Nótt points out, “Windows of opportunity for geothermal are opening up across Europe, including Britain – anywhere there is a level of heat in the ground as low as 25-30° even.”

Bringing new renewables technology to market is a large investment, particularly in the R&D stage, so clear political vision and support is crucial from the outset.

But the rewards can be limitless, Nótt believes. “A lot of innovations born in Iceland have been taken abroad at scale.

“One of our most exciting new stars is Carbfix, developed by Reykjavik Energy Company. They aimed to solve the problem of carbon emissions coming from their geothermal plant by putting them back in the ground to become carbon neutral.

“The CO2 is injected deep underground using a process which transforms the gas into rock. The technology has worked even better than we thought, with 70,000 tonnes already transformed into stable, safe minerals in less than two years – a natural process that would usually take millions of years!”

Of course, one of Iceland’s biggest strengths is its ability to manage unforeseen challenges. The recent volcanic eruptions at Grindavik are already causing unprecedented challenges to the nearby communities and seismic activity continues near the island’s capital Reykjavik.

Yet it remains business as usual. Nótt explains: “We have the ultimate confidence in our science community, with fantastic teams providing excellent support through this ongoing national state of emergency.

“We have a very good overview of the situation and very clear mitigation plans. Everything is monitored extremely closely, and it is important to say that everyone can continue to come to Iceland, feel safe and be safe.”

This phlegmatic attitude sums up the average Icelander’s approach to life.

It’s why – far from regarding the superhot magma bubbling under their feet as an existential threat – it’s being seen as something to potentially ‘harvest’ and bring more economic growth and prosperity.

 Nótt concludes, “We all need that grain of resilience and courage to keep things moving forward and find new ways of working.

“Icelanders are extremely resilient and thrive in complex situations, which is why I remain very optimistic for the future.”

Green by Iceland is one of the strategic partners in the Icelandic Renewable Energy Cluster which is hosting the Iceland Geothermal Conference 2024, where opportunities and options for a cleaner, more efficient future in heating, cooling and urban living will be discussed in-depth. Full details here.

Written by Karen Southern.

Previous articlePutting Sustainability into Your Digital Transformation
Next articleSustainable finance: Islamic vs Conventional Banks