The eccentric engineer: Iceland’s journey to the centre of the Earth

Iceland’s first Viking settlers could never have imagined that this chilly territory would eventually become the most energy self-sufficient country on Earth.

When the first Viking settlers of Iceland arrived over 1,100 years ago they found a land in some ways very familiar, but also rather odd. The icy mountains, fjords and glaciers were all reminders of their Scandinavian home, but some parts of the country were surprisingly warm.

As they sailed towards what would one day become their capital, they noticed steam rising from the ground and named the place ‘Smoky Bay’ – or Reykjavík in Old Norse. They didn’t know then that this ‘smoke’ would one day make this the most energy self-sufficient country on Earth.
Initially the geysers, hot springs and regular volcanic eruptions weren’t exactly welcomed by the settlers, whose hay crops were often ruined by the sudden emergence of hot springs on their land, but that didn’t prevent them finding a way to exploit the situation. Those first settlers used the hot springs of Thvottalaugur to wash clothes and to bake bread in pots buried in the hot sand.

By the 12th century, Iceland’s most famous poet and historian, Snorri Sturluson, had made himself a hot tub in his garden, carved from the solid rock and fed by the local hot spring.
Yet the true value of the volcanic landscape remained untapped for centuries. Despite tentative 18th-century attempts to drill into geothermal layers, Icelandic homes were heated well into the 19th century by the body heat of people and animals supplemented by fires of locally cut peat. As the century progressed, this was added to by imported coal and oil.

It was not until 1908 that an enterprising farmer, Stefán B Jónsson, connected a pipeline from a local hot spring to his house in Mosfellssveit to provide ‘central heating’. In a country with winters as long as Iceland’s, other farmers took up the idea, but with such a low and scattered population, only around a dozen farmhouses were heated this way by the 1930s.

With the advent of the Great Depression, the cost of importing fuels and meeting a growing demand for electricity required a more centralised approach to harnessing this natural resource. So, in 1930 the Icelandic authorities began digging for heat. Using discarded mining equipment, geothermal wells were drilled around Reykjavík and in November of that year an elementary school became the first public building in Reykjavík to be geothermally heated, with water pumped through a 3km pipe from Thvottalaugar – the same place where the Vikings had washed their clothes so long before.

While schools soon received geothermal heating (and heated swimming pools), domestic progress was slow and the limited wells could not supply the population of the capital, which doubled during the 1940s. It was the 1960s before most houses in the capital had geothermal heating. When the oil crisis struck in 1973, 50 per cent of the population were still heating their homes with oil, forcing the government to subsidise oil imports.

The answer would come not from the shallow heat sources around hot springs but from a new drive to drill deep into Iceland’s thin crust to tap into the vast heat contained there. In 1969, the first deep well was connected to the 3MW Bjarnarflag plant, which provided not only steam for heating, but electricity generation and waters for a local spa. As more geothermal plants came online, even the face of agriculture began to change. In a country with long winters and short summers, growing fruit and vegetables had often been impossible but at Hveragerði, in south-west Iceland, geothermal heating in greenhouses allowed the production of even exotic fruits like bananas.

Today, with nine out of ten Icelandic households heated with geothermal energy, still deeper geothermal exploration is attempting to tap into super­heated, super­critical water at 400°C. However, this is not without its dangers. One drilling team site near the Krafla volcano got something of a shock when they drilled straight into a magma chamber filled with molten rhyolite at 900°C.

Yet with supercritical steam offering up to 10 times the power output of shallower wells, Iceland has begun tapping into a seemingly limitless resource of clean energy while much of the world is still desperately trying to wean itself off fossil fuels. In the meantime, with cheap renewable and reliable energy, Iceland is attracting power-hungry industries, notably aluminium smelting, leading some Icelanders to wonder if it was better when the only smoke over Smoky Bay was steam.

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