Fast Company

What Can The USA Learn From Iceland Regarding Clean Energy?

Yesterday (September 22), President Obama addressed the United Nations Climate Change Summit with a speech focused on how the United States is "determined" to combat Climate Change. While the Waxman-Markey bill has been held up in the Senate, and the president's attentions have centered around Healthcare reform, many of us have been left wondering where we stand on the issue, eight months into this new administration.    

As many of you are aware, the House bill which passed earlier this year would first set mandatory limits on greenhouse gases and then develop emission reductions from 17 percent by 2020 and an ultimate goal of 83 percent by 2050. As our country looks to HOW we are going to achieve these goals, I am inspired by a very small nation the size of Kentucky, a mere 2500 miles from the United States: Iceland.

Recently I visited Reykjavik, Iceland for business and experienced first-hand one of the world’s cleanest cities. This arctic capital boasts the use of many eco-innovations including: city parking spots designated for electric cars (complete with recharging outlets); an antibiotic-free meat and dairy industry; and a city composting plant (still in development) which will process all commercial food waste and generate renewable energy through waste-to-energy techniques.  

However, I was most struck by the way Iceland powers and heats its buildings. In the capital alone, 26 percent of the energy comes from the country’s five major geothermal plants. And where, you ask, does the other 74 percent of energy come from – perhaps gas, coal or maybe even solar? Surprisingly, the majority (73 percent) comes from hydro-generated power plants with 1 percent being derived from fossil fuels; and overall, 71 percent of the domestic energy is from renewable sources. In fact, because of the abundance of natural geothermal resources available on this volcanic island, 87 percent of the country’s heating and water requirements are met. 

During my visit I had the opportunity to visit one of the five geothermal plants that heats the city called The Pearl or Perlan. Home to the large hot water holding tanks that supply the city’s heat, this green landmark, has also become a major tourist attraction for those visiting as the location boasts an observation deck, Concert Hall, a Viking Heritage Museum and five star restaurant that resides in the pearl-like dome on top of the water tanks.

At this point some of you might be wondering if sourcing this amount of energy from the Earth will eventually have an impact on it; and the answer is no. Since the system was first adapted in 1944, CO2 emissions have been reduced by up to 110,000,000 tons, delivering savings of up to 4 million tons of CO2 every year. Additionally, possessing the world’s largest geothermal heating system of steam heating has allowed for Reykjavik to acquire substantial financial savings - roughly 4 billion U.S. dollars. And according to research, it is estimated that the country’s annual savings benefit of geothermal over oil is approximately 140 million U.S. dollars.

The great news is that Iceland is not alone. Many regions of the world boast a similar capability for geothermal capture. Since Iceland has a high concentration of volcanoes, it is an obvious choice for this country of only 300,000 residents – 250,000 of which live in or around Reykjavik.

What impressed me the most about my visit was learning that Icelandic leadership has long seen the potential for this alternative energy source. The structure was first investigated in the 1930s with development of the system beginning after WWII. In the late 60s, an Energy Fund was created to advance the development of geothermal use, both on a large and small scale. Given the country’s recent economic troubles, the strength of its utilities provides some peace of mind to a country otherwise in a state of transition.  

When I returned to my laptop, I reviewed a map of U.S. geothermal locations. While the investment may be significant given the drilling required to reach the heat, geothermal may well prove to be one of the more significant sources of future energy, power and heat in our country. Did you know that the entire United States has the geothermal capacity necessary to power these heat pumps? And on the U.S. Department of Energy Website, you can view which regions maintain the greatest opportunity for geothermal energy.  

While I am not a scientist by trade, I do recognize that we have tremendous untapped capacity that we should explore in our quest to diversify our renewable energy options and decrease our dependency on foreign oil. I encourage companies to review how these resources could be utilized in their manufacturing efforts – particularly those processes which require steam. A great example of that would be the textile industry, which involves the use of steam cleaning and steam turbines.     

From my research I have learned that companies such as Johnson & Johnson (J&J) have already made investments in geothermal energy in Europe. J&J uses geothermal energy to heat and cool its 7000 square foot manufacturing facility for orthopedic surgical supplies and appliances in DePuy, France. In addition to the systems elimination of carbon emission, air pollution, noise and odor that would have been generated from the previous natural gas system, the DePuy operation has also recorded an annual savings of 9,000 Euros since 1999.   

Based on what I learned on the Department of Energy's Website, the majority of the Western United States maintains geothermal temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius, many regions in the
Midwest and Texas have temperatures of over 150 degree Celsius and an mentioned above, all of the United States is capable of maintaining geothermal heat pumps. It would seem to me that we have vast untapped resources we need to be considering as an immediate fix to our energy and climate contributions in this country.

I welcome comments from readers regarding other ways geothermal is being used or can be used in the United States.

Note:  research sourced from the C40 Cities Website, in partnership with Clinton Climate Initiative:

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