Science 4 min read

How Iceland is Leading a Geothermal System Revolution

Christopher Wood |

Christopher Wood |

In the search for cleaner burning and more efficient sources of energy, Iceland is leading by example. The country already generates the majority of its energy from renewable sources and has long relied on a geothermal system that harnesses energy from local volcanic activity to power its cities.

With advances in geothermal system technology, Iceland is positioned to show the world what a thriving fossil fuel-free economy based on renewable energy exports might look like.   

Blowing off Steam

Virtually all of Iceland’s energy comes from clean sources like their geothermal system, which per kilowatt-hour produce less than 5 percent of the total carbon dioxide that is released by coal power plants.

Home to four volcanos, geothermal energy is abundant on the Reykjanes Peninsula where 12 geothermal wells help power the region. 

Because superheated steam evaporates off of geothermal pools, conventional geothermal systems for producing energy involve drilling wells down to the pools and fitting the wells with turbines. The turbines then generate electricity from the steam.

On the Reykjanes Peninsula, for example, such turbines produce up to 100 megawatts of energy capable of power hundreds of homes. 

Building on conventional methods and established infrastructure, the region hopes to explore new geothermal power techniques beyond harnessing steam- potentially placing the peninsula at the epicenter of a geothermal energy revolution.

From oil Wells to Energy Wells

Like the initiative’s name indicates, the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) aims to drill deeper wells of up to 5 kilometers below the surface to reach new pockets of superheated materials under intense pressure. 

New geothermal power extraction technologies pioneered by the IDDP could revert Iceland’s economy back to an export-driven model based in energy and completely revitalize the country’s already improving economy following the 2008-2011 Banking Crisis.
Iceland’s economy is already improving following the 2008-2011 Banking Crisis, but experimental geothermal power technologies pioneered by the IDDP could completely revitalize the country’s economy by reverting back to an export-driven model based in renewable energy. Designua |

Beyond the steam that conventional geothermal wells are after, the super deep IDDP are interested in tapping into “supercritical” water deposits. Due to the intense subterranean heat and pressure, these water deposits are naturally kept in a state that is neither liquid nor gas.

Theoretically, the project could also utilize the magma, or lava, that is found thousands of feet below the surface near pools of supercritical water. Tapping into the superheated molten rock could increase a geothermal well’s power output to ten times that of the average geothermal well

“If the IDDP is successful, Iceland could become the world’s de facto leader in (and chief exporter of) clean, renewable energy.”

Higher power output from their geothermal system would make the region even less dependent on traditional fossil fuels and would also help significantly lower the costs of geothermal power. Lower costs would contribute to making renewable energy sources like geothermal power not only commercially viable but also extremely competitive alternatives to traditional fossil fuels, and offer Iceland incredible economic potential if it can harness the technology as energy exports.

Digging Deeper

Co-chief Scientist for the IDDP and professor emeritus at the Univeristy of California at Riverside Dr. Wilfred Elders explains that the project has already discovered the “hottest wellhead in the world,” and is clearly making progress toward finishing the IDDP-2 deep well and developing a sustainable drill head to serve as a testing ground for experimental energy extraction and transportation techniques.

If the IDDP is successful, Iceland stands to become the de facto leader in (and chief exporter of) clean, renewable energy.

The small island nation would provide a model for countries with similar geology and volcanic activity like El Salvador, Costa Rica, Kenya and the Philippines to adopt the technology, potentially revolutionizing their economies and energy infrastructure.

Even the US economy stands to benefit from next-gen geothermal power technology with Mount St. Helens or the Yellowstone Caldera supervolcano.

The IDDP looks promising, but before the benefits can be realized, engineers have to master techniques that would allow them to extract and convert the superheated materials into usable and transportable geothermal power.


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