Iceland Mag

4 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag

Nature

Reykjavík: A city powered by geothermal energy

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • At Vesturbæjarlaug swimming pool in Reykjavík Icelanders have been using geothermal hot water to fill hot tubs and pools since the Viking age. In fact, one of the oldest preserved structures in Iceland is a hot tub: Snorralaug in West Iceland. Photo/Daníel Rúnarsson.

One of the things that defines Iceland is the country’s high level of geological activity. At least 30 different volcanoes have erupted in the thousand-odd years since Iceland was settled, and there are more than 200 volcanoes within the active volcanic zone that stretches across the island from the Southwest to the Northeast. In addition, over 600 hot springs, defined as water springs with temperatures in excess of 20°C (68°F), have been identified.

1000 years of hot tub history, 100 years of geothermal power
Iceland’s location at the top of the North Atlantic ridge, where hot magma boils from the mantle of the earth to the surface, is probably its greatest and most valuable natural asset. Not only does the volcanic and geothermal activity create the dramatic and magnificent landscapes and natural formations that are the basis of Iceland’s tourism industry, it provides Iceland with abundant cheap and renewable energy.

Read more: Reykjanes Geopark: A volcanic wonderland less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavík

Snorralaug, Reykholt

Snorralaug pool in Reykholt, West Iceland A pool is believed to have been located in Reykholt since the year 960. Photo/Valur

Icelanders have utilized this resource ever since the country was first settled in the 9th century. The most obvious use for Iceland’s geothermal water, and probably the first as well, is bathing. In fact, one of the oldest man-made structures in Iceland is a small pool in Reykholt, the great seat of power and learning in Saga Age Iceland.

The current pool is believed to have been constructed in the 13th century, at the same location where the poet and scholar Snorri Sturluson built a pool after he moved to Reykholt in 1206. Snorri was one of the most powerful chieftains during the tumultuous Sturlungaöld (the Sturlung era, essentially a civil war that raged from 1220 to 1262). He is also the author of the Prose Edda, a work of literature that preserves much of the Old Norse religion and mythology. He is believed to have constructed one of the first geothermal pools in Iceland—according to some sources, Snorri’s pool could accommodate 50 people!

However, in the last 100 years, Icelanders have increasingly harnessed the renewable energy of its geothermal resources to power a modern industrial society. The most spectacular example of this work is found in Reykjavík.

High-temperature areas
Reykjavík sits at the edge of the volcanic zone that stretches across Iceland. Along this zone, we find at least 20 high-temperature geothermal areas, defined as areas where the water reaches 250°C at a depth of 1,000 meters. All of these high-temperature areas are linked to the active volcanic systems. Reykjavík draws much of its hot water, and electricity, from some of the most active high-temperature areas, located around the volcano Hengill, to the East of the city.

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

In addition to the high-temperature areas, there are about 250 low-temperature areas around Iceland, where water temperatures do not exceed 150°C in the Earth’s upper 1,000 meter-deep crust. Several of these areas are actually located within the city limits.

German submarine warfare in WWI as a catalyst
Early in the city’s history, Reykjavík, like other European cities, was powered with coal and other fossil fuels. But during the First World War, oil and coal imports were disrupted, due to German submarine warfare, causing shortages and rising prices. That situation forced many Icelanders to take a second look at how to utilize domestic energy sources.

Read more: Watch: What did the “bleak outpost” of Reykjavík look like in WWII?

Laugardalur, valley, Laugardalslaug

Laugardalslaug swimming pool Reykjavík derives its name from the steam plumes which would have risen from the geothermal area in Laugardalur valley when the first settlers arrived. Photo/Stefán Karlsson

The first boreholes in geothermal areas in Iceland had been sunk in 1755, but the goal then was not to drill for hot water but to mine for sulphur, which was an extremely valuable commodity. Similarly, the wells that were sunk in Laugardalurinn valley in 1928–1930 were not primarily intended for hot water, but for the generation of electricity. However, the steam and water produced by the boreholes was not hot enough to produce electricity.

Instead, a 3 km (1.8 mile) long pipeline was built to connect the boreholes to the city.

A cleaner, more liveable city, thanks to geothermal power
The first houses to be connected to the new Reykjavík District heating utility were on the eastern slopes of Skólavörðuholt hill, which at that time marked the eastern edge of the city. A total of 70 private homes and several public buildings, including the first indoor swimming pool in Reykjavík, Sundhöllin, were connected in this first round.

Read more: In deep waters: Iceland's best swimming pools

Over the next two decades, the utility was expanded dramatically, so that by the 1950s, half of all Reykjavík residents had access. The district heating utility contributed to the appeal of Reykjavík. Not only did it lower the heating bills of residents, allowing even poor people to heat their homes properly, thus significantly improving public health according to many observers, it also eliminated the cloud of dark coal smoke which had frequently covered Reykjavík during the early decades of the century. Reykjavík became a cleaner and more liveable city

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