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Iceland: a model for a green world

Does Iceland provide a potential solution to the ultimate problem of climate change?

By Nadia Farag

The UN sent out shockwaves in 2018 when they made an announcement which those interested in environmental issues had long suspected; there are only 12 years left to prevent climate change reaching catastrophic levels. With limited time left to change our ways, what can we do? Perhaps the answer has always been in front of us - or slightly north west - in Iceland.

Following an oil crisis in the 1970s the Icelandic government made the decision to transition the country from being largely dependent on coal and oil to becoming completely independent of fossil fuels. Due to its extensive geothermal and hydro resources, Iceland now gets 100% of its electricity from renewable sources. In fact, 81% of the country’s electricity, heat and transportation needs are met by reservoirs and geothermal sources alone.

Generating electricity from geothermal sources is relatively similar to ‘standard’ coal methods. Instead of using heat from coal, steam is used to power the process instead. Geothermal reservoirs (i.e. active volcanoes as heat sources) in Iceland heat the water up, meaning no external fuel source is required for heating. The steam from the water then turns a generator, thus converting the heat energy into electrical energy. Heat from residual geothermal fluids is then often used to heat Iceland’s famous outdoor pools.

Iceland’s unique geography is what allows the country to utilise hydropower to such a significant degree; just over 75% of all the electricity generated comes from hydropower. Around 11% of the country is covered in glaciers and 20% of all precipitation in the country contributes to the formation of the glaciers. An increase in the volume of a glaciers significantly affects the streamflow of glacial rivers, resulting in the generation of even more hydropower. Hydropower works by using currents to turn turbines which are connected to a generator, thus converting the kinetic energy of the turbine into electrical energy.

In recent years, there has even been talk of using Icelandic renewable sources to send power to us poor souls here in a fossil fuel dependent Britain. It is being theorised that magma from a molten magma lake in northern Iceland (2km below the earths crust) could be used to form ‘supercritical steam’. ‘Supercritical steam’ is water that is under high enough temperature and pressure that it exhibits properties of both a liquid and a gas. This could be used to generate power (using the same methods the Icelandic people use for themselves) and sent via under sea cables across the north Atlantic. It is worth noting, though, this is not without its hurdles and is certainly far from being a ready to go solution.

Whilst replicating Iceland initially seems like it could be the solution we need, it must be emphasised that it is due to the unique Icelandic landscape that they are capable of using these sustainable methods of generating power on such a large scale. However, it is an example of how we should all be reconsidering our energy sources and investigating alternatives, for which the resources may already be at our disposal.

From Issue 17

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