Iceland Mag

12 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag

Geothermal power generates higher living standards, lower heating costs and less pollution

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • Warm inside Without geothermal power, which provides Icelanders with cheap energy to heat their homes and warm water to fill swimming pools, life in Iceland wouldn't be as pleasant. Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson. 

One of the principal sources of the quality of life in Iceland is geothermal power. For example, it provides Icelanders with hot water to fill outdoor swimming pools and hot tubs which have been identified as one of the key sources of Icelandic well-being, the “secret to the country’s happiness”.

Read more: NYT finds geothermal public pools key to social harmony and well-being in Iceland

But geothermal power improves the quality of life for Icelanders in some other, more easily measurable ways as well.

Massive savings on utility bills
Thanks to the abundant geothermal power, the cost of heat in Reykjavík is only 1/3 of the price of heating with oil. The price of heat in Reykjavík is by far the lowest in the Nordic countries, one fourth of the price paid by Danes, and a little less than half of what Finns pay for heating their homes. The average annual savings for a Reykjavík family have been estimated to be at least 80,000 ISK (640 USD/570 EUR).

Read more: Foundations of Well-being: Iceland ranks fourth on the Social Progress Index

These savings pile up: A conservative estimate puts the total benefits to the Icelandic economy from having access to geothermal heating, instead of oil heating, from the 1940s to 2006, at 4.3 billion US dollars, a sizable sum for a small economy.

Hellisheiði

The Hellisheiði Power Plant The third largest goethermal power plant in Iceland. Photo/Valli

Warmer homes, improved health
But this is only a part of the picture, as lower heating costs have contributed to significant improvements in living standards. Thanks to lower heating costs even low-income Reykjavík residents have been able to maintain higher temperatures in their homes during the coldest months of winter.

The introduction of the Reykjavík district heating utility in the 1930s also contributed to improved public health: The frequency of influenza and the common cold dropped from 22 per 100 in 1937 to 4 in 100 in 1948.

Cleaner air and less CO2 emissions
Before the Reykjavík geothermal district heating utility was connected the first houses in the early 1930s, the citizens of Reykjavík burned oil and coal to heat their homes, creating a dark cloud of smog that hung over the city. But thanks to geothermal heating, Reykjavík is now one of the cleanest cities in the world.

Read more: Reykjavík nominated as one of 10 cities that are shaping the future of urban living

It has also been estimated that in the absence of the geothermal district heating utility, the annual CO2 emissions from Reykjavík would be as much as 4 million tons every year. Thanks to geothermal heating, the reduction in CO2 emissions from Reykjavík homes in the hundred years from 1914 to 2014 has been put at 140 million tons. Iceland’s annual rate of CO2 emissions would be more than three times greater if the country did not make use of geothermal power.

Nesjavellir power plant

Nesjavellir power plant Second largest geothermal power plant in Iceland, produces nearly half of all hot water consumed in the capital region. Photo/Ernir

Generating green electricity
Almost 100% of electricity generated in Iceland is generated from renewable sources: Only 0.02% was generated with fossil fuels. Most (roughly 70%) of this is generated by hydro power, but almost a third comes from geothermal power. Several of the largest geothermal power plants are found in the vicinity of Reykjavík.

One of these is the Nesjavellir geothermal power station, the second largest geothermal power station in Iceland. The Nesjavellir geothermal power station produces almost half of all the hot water used for heating homes in the capital region, but it also produces electricity. Nesjavellir has a capacity of 120 MW of electrical power and about 1100 litres of hot water per second.

Read more: Icelandic homes use 8% less electricity than in 2009, per capita electricity use still highest in world

The Hellisheiði power station on the west slopes of the volcano Hengill (southeast of Reykjavik) is the third largest in the world, and has a capacity of 303 MW of electricity and 400 MW of hot water.

All in all, about 20% of all harnessed geothermal energy in Iceland is used to generate electricity, and roughly a fourth of all electricity consumed in Iceland is produced by geothermal power plants.

Power plants are popular tourist destinations
The Hellisheiði power plant has a popular visitor centre where visitors can learn about the geology of Iceland and explore the history, current utilization, and future potential of geothermal power in Iceland.

Read more: Iceland's two blue water pools: The Blue Lagoon vs. Mývatn Nature Baths

Blue Lagoon, bláa lónið

The Blue Lagoon The water in the blue lagoon is geothermal seawater pumped up by the Svartsengi power plant. Photo/Vilhelm Gunarsson

But foreign visitors are probably more familiar with the Svartsengi power plant, which produces 75 MW.  The construction of Svartsengi began in 1977, and shortly thereafter, the mineral-rich surplus water from the power plant began to be used for one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations: the Blue Lagoon.

So, when you visit the Blue Lagoon, you are visiting one of Iceland’s largest geothermal power stations!

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