Iceland’s Geothermal Focus
Iceland is a country in the middle geographically between North America and mainland Europe, but there is nothing in the middle about the country’s leadership in renewable energy.
Rich KellerGenetically modified barley grows from seedling to maturity in Orf Genetics’ greenhouses. Its political leadership and business investors see the United States using biomass for generating electric energy or producing biofuels as completely contrary to the approach that should be emphasized. They contend using “non-biological sources of renewable power,” such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, ocean movement and industrial byproducts, should be the focus going forward.
Justification for a non-biological energy focus comes from a strong belief that the world’s climate is changing and that land needs to be used for producing food rather than energy. And Iceland-based engineers and researchers have proven that geothermal is a form of energy that can be utilized to displace using biomass and fossil fuels energy.
“I see it as my fundamental moral duty to demonstrate to other countries that we can, in fact, execute a fundamental change and this is not just a pipe dream or empty geology…It is an extraordinarily good business,” said Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, during a 1 ½ hour meeting at his official residence talking with business-to-business media from Europe and the U.S.
Iceland is a country courting both European and U.S. business investment. Although Iceland sides with European Union nations on drastically changing the focus away from using plants for energy, Iceland does not, without scientific reason, reject agricultural advances such as genetically modified crop production, which makes it different than most European Union nations.
ENERGY WITHOUT VOLCANOES
Iceland is famous for volcanic activity, which gives the country an advantage over other countries for geothermal energy, but this energy source should not be ignored by any country of the world, according to President Grimsson. Iceland’s volcanic activity only means that geothermal energy is easy to tap near the surface of the island for use to heat nearly every home and business on the island. Geothermal energy also is used to produce low-cost electricity.
President Grimsson referred to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study analysis for total capacity for geothermal energy production. “It (geothermal) could provide twice the energy consumption of the United States, that was the conclusion of MIT about the geothermal potential of the U.S.,” he said.
He went on to note how the world’s population is living on a very thin layer of the earth, and engineers and scientists are developing sophisticated technology to allow the energy of the molten “fireball” center of the planet to be harnessed for energy. “There is this big fireball under every country of the world, not just Iceland. We were not given exclusive rights to have this fireball under us. It is everywhere,” he concluded.
High-tech entrepreneurs are providing employment in Iceland for those engineers and scientists that Grimsson mentioned. Technology companies, even those with agricultural product concepts, are geothermal focused or dependent, if nothing other than using low-cost energy—heat and electricity.
AGRICULTURE HAS A PLACE
My recent Invest in Iceland agency-sponsored media trip showed how agriculture-related, high-tech industries could locate on the island at a lower cost than in the U.S. or other countries of the world. The proof was companies already successfully doing business on the island without concern of seismic disaster, which is a wholly unjustified concern, according to history of the last century.
Rich KellerHafberg Thorisson, greenhouse owner, checks greenhouse operations on a computer terminal. The eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 spread ash across Europe, but it had little impact on Iceland itself. Prevailing winds sent the ash away from the island, and the international airport was only closed one day whereas European airports were closed for much longer. Activity on Iceland was business as normal. In degree of volcanic activity, it was not a big eruption, and scientists point out that earthquake activity is not severe because the earth’s crust-plate boundaries are not jamming together but moving apart. The island is subtly stretching between two to four centimeters per year.
Greenhouse production is a main agriculture focus on the island; field crop production is quite limited because of the short growing season, summer high temperatures in the 60s and limited production soils. Enticement of a large-scale tomato grower to build huge greenhouses near one of the country’s geothermal electric power plants is nearing realization. The president proudly had samples of greenhouse-grown tomatoes served to his journalist guests to prove the taste.
Rich KellerIceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson took time to have his photo taken with AgProfessional Editor Rich Keller. A greenhouse operation growing genetically modified (GM) barley for extraction of specific proteins is an example of a entrepreneurial company started by geneticists with a plant biology background. The scientists that founded Orf Genetics developed a way to alter barley to produce various proteins in the barley seed harvested at the end of a 2 ½ to three month greenhouse growing season.
“We have developed a technology platform where we have the barley producing the protein of our choice in the seed. We introduce the gene with the information for the specific protein into the barley, and the gene is only expressed in the seed harvested. It is not in the leaves, roots or stems,” said Einar Mäntylä, Ph.D., a co-founder and vice-president, director for research liaison and intellectual property of Orf Genetics.
He noted, “The barley is not intended for use as food or feed but merely the means to produce proteins.” Those proteins are in the harvested seed that can be stored for years before extraction of the proteins through milling and biochemistry processing.
The company started with the business model to produce proteins for use by scientists around the world to use as cell culture media. That side of the business is likely to be overshadowed as the company is expanding operations to produce proteins for skin care products. The specific proteins, of the more than 40 that the company geneticist can have the barley grow, are “like vitamins for the skin,” Mäntylä said. The company has its own line of skin care products being distributed in 22 countries, including the U.S.
Another new agriculture technology business being developed by a greenhouse lettuce grower is Omega 3 algae production. Hafberg Thorisson, master grower, will be erecting a pilot project greenhouse with hydroponic pipes to grow algae for harvesting Omega 3 oil for human consumption, cosmetics and medical purposes. He doesn’t see growing “high-end market algae,” as a big risk compared to the one he took in the late 1970s when he established his greenhouse leaf lettuce business and had to do grocery store sampling to earn interest by Icelanders to eat greens.
FUEL FROM CARBON DIOXIDE
The mention of algae suggests algae for biofuels is a possible long-term technology that doesn’t have to consume land space. But other renewable fuels with a low carbon footprint can be produced with new technologies if investment is made in science.
Benedikt Stefánsson, Carbon Recycling International, is director of business development for a start-up company that is producing methanol from carbon dioxide emitted from a geothermal electric plant.
He explained that non-condensable gases, primarily carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, come from a geothermal power plant. Hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide can be separated to produce a pure stream of carbon dioxide for processing with electrolyzed water.
“We separate the water into hydrogen and oxygen, and we take the hydrogen and combine it with the carbon dioxide through a synthesis process to make methanol,” Stefánsson said.
Renewable non-carbon-based electric generation in Iceland makes the process economically possible and meets renewable criteria from start to finish. Methanol can be used in gasoline in Europe but is not approved for use in the U.S., Stefánsson noted. Methanol can also be converted to a form of ether that can be used in European gasoline.
Geothermal and hydro energy on Iceland can produce more electricity than needed by the residents and companies on the island, therefore, its low cost. That is why Invest in Iceland is trying to convince high electricity consumption industries to move to Iceland, but if that doesn’t succeed, interconnector cables for power transmission between Iceland, the United Kingdom and mainland Europe are anticipated to be laid under the ocean.
Iceland already is exporting geothermal energy to those interested in investing for the future. President Grimssom said, “To some extent you could say we are already exporting—the know-how and the technology.”
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