29 August 2012

Geothermal Iceland!

If you can believe it, all geysers on earth get their name from one Icelandic steam feature – the original Geysir, in south-western Iceland.  It sends up a few high plumes daily, but is rather irregular and infrequent.  A minute’s walk away, though, is this one, Strokkur, which gushes every ten minutes.  It’s still surprising, even when you’re expecting it – even in a country full of geysers.
Iceland is the most volcanic island on earth.  Over one quarter of the country is an active volcano zone.  This is somewhat frightening, and has its numerous downsides.  But there are also benefits to living where the earth’s crust is so thin and fractured.  For one thing, there’s no shortage of energy – heat from the earth’s core is readily accessible, and used for everything from producing electricity to growing exotic flowers.  Then there are all the hot springs and vents, which have myriad uses.  We’ve discovered that the Icelandic people have turned steam and geologic heat into a kind of magic.
“And back here,” the guide said with perfect nonchalance, “we have our volcano.”  We were taking a short tour of the Hellisheiði power plant, some twenty miles outside of Reykjavik – it’s a new facility, with lots of brushed aluminum accents and billowing steam.   From pipes drilled several kilometers down into the heart of the volcano (“No danger, it erupts every five thousand years,” we were told), the plant extracts superheated steam and water.  The steam runs turbines that power the entire Reykjavik area - free of charge - with plenty of energy left over.  The hot liquid is used to heat up potable water, which is piped to the capital.  All the hot water in the city come from here.  “We only lose two degrees,” the woman said, with obvious pride.
Also, the hot water is used to heat the buildings in Reykjavik and is run through pipes beneath streets and sidewalks to keep them free of ice and snow.  “It’s very handy for heavy traffic points,” our guide told us.  It’s amazing – they have more heat and electricity than they know what to do with.
Iceland produces almost one hundred percent of its own energy, mostly from geothermal turbines (though there are some hydropower dams, too).  Almost all of it is provided to the population at zero cost, and the surplus is sold to industry.
Of course, the geothermal experience that most travelers in Iceland have is one on a far smaller scale.  Almost every town in the country has a hot spring bath.  The formality of these places varies from built-up, spa-like centers to simple holes in the ground.  As my cousin (and Iceland guidebook author) Evan Spring told me, “all you have to do is dig a hole in the ground and hot water comes up.”
The baths are generally cheap and friendly places, used more by locals than visitors.  This pool, at Krossnes, is one of the northernmost and most remote.  At the very end of a long, dirt, Westfjords road, it’s exposed to bitter wind and drizzle off the sea.  Still, the water is warm enough – a constant one hundred degrees Fahrenheit – that it doesn’t matter.  It always feels luxurious.
There are also wild hot springs and pools, steam holes and warm streams.  About a half hour hike into the mountain valley of Reykjadalur, the Klambragil “river” is a comfortable bathing temperature nearly year round.  The air was only about forty degrees Fahrenheit when we visited (in late August!), but the water was hot-tub temperature.  We spent half an hour soaking with a dozen or so other hikers.
Icelanders also use the geothermal hotspots for natural steam rooms, and many houses have their own “hotpots” - small, spring-fed tubs.  From these are derived the similar “mudpots,’ which are obviously much dirtier.
They grow bananas in Hveragerði, amazingly enough.  They also have a thriving tomato industry, and beautiful local roses.  Heated by water from deep within the core, lit by geothermal electricity, the town’s many greenhouses are almost completely self-sufficient, even with so many dark days in the winter.
From the roadside, as evening approaches, the orange grow-bulbs burn like firelight through the trees.  It’s a pretty sight – comforting, but also curiously alien.
Hveragerði has an unusual amount of geothermal activity, even for Iceland, and its residents have long taken advantage of the abundant steam-vents and bubbling water.  In 1930, a local dairy began pasteurizing all its milk using natural steam.  Before that, farmers baked their dark bread in the hot earth.  Some of the houses have used geothermal heat for centuries.
Kjöt og Kúnst – a bakery and café in town – prepares most of its food with steam and hot-earth ovens.  Everything on this plate was cooked with heat from the earth’s core: the steamed carrots, the bread and the pot of plokkfiskur (mashed cod and potato with cream and cheese).
Even simpler is hard-boiling eggs in one of the hot streams.  The Hveragerði geothermal park is free, but a local egg to cook is 100 kroner (about eighty cents).  The dangling mesh sack is provided free.  Here, a tourist lowers two eggs into a pot submerged in the steaming trickle.  Fifteen minutes later, she pulled her eggs up, fully cooked.  I asked her how they were.  “Perfect,” she said.  “Fudgy center, no rubberiness to the white, not a trace of grey.” *
An information board in the park tells of a (possibly mythical) “hot spring bird."  They are said to have dived and disappeared when people approached.  If caught, they were very strange to eat.
“…their meat does not become tender in boiling water,” we read, “but if they are immersed in cold water they become cooked and edible within one hour, but have a ‘chilly taste.’”

*Disclaimer: the tourist was Rebecca.


  1. Hi M. and R.! I love the pictures in this post and the idea that you can cook eggs in/at the springs! The disclaimer at the end is a especially funny.

  2. Hi there! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge about geothermal with us. You have such a very informative post. It was very well said. Anyway, in addition to what you have written, heat pumps provide winter heating by extracting heat from a source and transferring it into a building. Heat can be extracted from any source, no matter how cold, but a warmer source allows higher efficiency. A ground source heat pump uses the top layer of the earth's crust as a source of heat, thus taking advantage of its seasonally moderated temperature. Our drill rigs are all wheel drive with a low center of gravity thus making it possible to transverse difficult sites. Geothermal NH