How Iceland Became a Global Leader in Renewable Energy – OilPrice.com

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How Iceland Became a Global Leader in Renewable Energy | OilPrice.com

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Iceland

Iceland is a world leader when it comes to renewable energy production, having long developed its natural resources to power a green revolution. The Nordic island nation is home to abundant geothermal and hydropower energy sources, and it has also significantly developed its wind power sector in recent years. Despite huge strides in its renewable energy development, putting it way ahead of most of the competition, the Icelandic government has big plans to develop even more clean energy by harnessing the power of its volcanoes in a first-of-a-kind project. 

Iceland aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and is well on its way to doing so. By April 2024, 100 percent of homes across the country were heated using renewable energy, a feat which few countries have managed to achieve. This was largely supported by the rapid development of the country’s geothermal resources. Iceland increased its output of geothermal electricity by 1,700 percent between 1990 and 2014, using the power of its natural resources to fuel a green transition. 

Iceland’s geothermal resources provide around 30 percent of the energy mix it uses to power itself. Energy companies transport geothermal water directly to houses from the source, using boreholes to send the hot water through pipelines. This is relatively easy as many of Iceland’s geothermal resources are located at surface level, rather than deep underground. Iceland has a geothermal power generation capacity of around 755 MW, making it one of the world’s largest geothermal energy generators. 

Iceland’s Hellisheidi geothermal power plant is one of the top ten largest geothermal plants in the world. It generates 303 MW of electricity and 400 MW of thermal energy. In 2021, the operators launched a capture and storage (CCS) project at the site, claiming it was the world’s biggest direct air CCS plant at the time. This helped to reduce the already low carbon emissions associated with geothermal energy production. 

The Nordic country also produces vast amounts of hydroelectricity, which contributes around 70 percent of the energy mix. Iceland uses the meltwater rivers that flow off massive glaciers to produce its hydroelectric power. The country’s extensive experience in hydropower has led Icelandic experts to develop many other hydro projects around the globe. 

Known as the land of ice and fire, Iceland plans to use not only its easy-to-access geothermal resources but to also develop new technology to tap into its extremely hard-to-reach energy potential. Iceland is developing the Krafla Magma Testbed (KMT) Project to try to access energy deep inside its volcanoes. The temperatures inside Krafla, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, reach up to 1,300°C, which, if accessed, could provide a vast amount of clean energy. Experts now plan to bore into a volcano’s magma chamber to access its fumes to produce green energy.

Although the Icelandic government is actively pursuing the Krafla project, accessing the volcano’s energy will be extremely difficult as the machinery needed to carry out the project does not yet exist. The temperatures inside the magma chamber as simply too hot for any existing technology to access. However, this is not the first time that scientists have drilled into magma in Iceland, with explorers accidentally hitting magma when drilling the IDD-1 project in 2009. The project ultimately failed due to the technological constraints of the time. Nevertheless, it provided great insight, as when flow tested around a year after the initial drilling, researchers found that it was around ten times more powerful than the average well in Krafla, showing the huge potential for tapping into the power of magma. 

The KMT team, supported by the government of Iceland, is currently drilling a KMT-1, a monitoring and volcanic research well, and KMT-2, an energy research well. These will be used to collect data to better understand the scope of the project. The team is working closely with the sensor community to develop new temperature sensors and temperature-resilient technologies to collect and assess samples from within the volcano. This will not only help the team to understand the potential for energy production, but it could also help them to better forecast volcanic events to enhance early warning systems for eruptions. 

Björn Þór Guðmundsson, from the KMT project, explained, “Reducing uncertainties about conditions in magma from KMT will decrease start-up costs. KMT aims to revolutionise the geothermal industry by improving geothermal power economics up to an order of magnitude, which was showed to be the difference between a conventional well in Krafla and the IDDP-1 well, which accidentally entered magma. This will be done by designing new innovative production wells that can withstand near-magma conditions.” 

While we are likely still a long way off from achieving advanced geothermal energy production from magma chambers in volcanoes, the KMT project could provide the information needed to significantly advance the technology required to access this energy source. In addition, Iceland’s long history with geothermal energy production and its abundant natural geothermal resources make it the optimal environment to develop these ambitious volcano projects.   

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By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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