President of Iceland gives geothermal perspective

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland—In an hour and a half discussion with journalists, President Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson of Iceland, outlined how Iceland is trying to attract entrepreneurs with ideas in how to use geothermal energy and electricity generated from geothermal energy. At the same time, he proudly pointed out that Iceland is exporting its expertise in geothermal energy to the rest of the world.

In a separate meeting with a private industry official, the concept of quality cropland or marginal land being used for ethanol production, including cellulosic, was condemned as counter to regulations that Europe is instigating to reduce greenhouse gases and the switchover to environmentally friendly biofuels. This was one message during a stop at Carbon Recycling International by the group of nine journalists from North America and Europe.

The worst blizzard in about 10 years hit Reykjavik on Wednesday, but that didn’t stop the Invest in Iceland tour guides from having a full agenda for the journalists. The four North American journalists interested in agricultural topics heard about methanol production, geothermal greenhouse operations and Iceland’s leadership in geothermal energy.

The highlight of the day for the entire group of journalists was visiting with the president of Iceland at his residence. President Grimsson pointed to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study analysis that the U.S. has much more potential for generating geothermal energy within the renewable fuels category. The president explained how the MIT report on the geothermal potential of the United States, which includes deep well drilling, not just the shallow well drilling that has been the center of geothermal energy production so far, has much more potential for the future of the U.S. 

“The conclusion of that MIT report was that the geothermal potential of the U.S. (in generating geothermal energy) is so big that it could provide twice the energy consumption of the U.S. today…The same is the story in many, many other places,” the president said.

His comment was basically contrary to my report of March 5 that referenced shallow well drilling as not being economically feasible for a huge amount of geothermal energy generation in the U.S. That statement appears to hold true, but other methods of extraction of geothermal energy are being developed. The total geothermal energy MIT report takes into account the deep wells technology still being developed, geothermal shallow wells and small-pipe wells to supplement the heating of individual houses.

President Grimsson is an ambassador for geothermal energy in all countries of the world and that is part of why a three-day geothermal conference with representation from approximately 40 countries is being conducted with the closing sessions Thursday.

In the early 1970s, Iceland was still classified as a developing nation, geothermal technology along with a commitment that all the homes in Iceland would be connected to geothermal heating pipes or electricity from geothermal power plants and weaned away from hydro power, moved the country into being a new leader in technology.

Continued recovery from the recent economic crisis has Iceland moving into a better place financially. The country had a horrible setback with the financial crisis of 2008 but is steadily building back. Before the crisis, investment and projections of success had the country expanding as fast as contractors could put up new office buildings and residences.

Because of geothermal energy, “Iceland is a strong magnet for foreign investment” once again, the president said. “It is a major reason why we are recovering more effectively after the budget crisis than other countries,” he added.  

“I see it as my fundamentally 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. It probably is the best thing that we have done in this country since the foundation of the republic,” he noted.

The carbon dioxide (CO2) from the geothermal power plants in Iceland will be the main raw material for methanol being produced in Iceland. Two Americans and two Icelanders put together a company that produces a branded methanol—Vulcanol.

 

A pilot plant to convert CO2 and hydrogen into methanol is in operation near one of Iceland’s power plants. This production operation is a startup that will lead to at least two more Vulcanol plants, according to Benedikt Stefánsson, director of business development for Carbon Recycling International.

“We take flue gas from the (geothermal) power plant, which contains steam and non-condensable gases. Those gases are primarily carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide (HS2). We have to separate the hydrogen sulfide from the carbon dioxide in a gas conditioning phase and extract a pure stream of carbon dioxide. We then take electric power…from the national grid—to electrolyze water, which means to split water using electrons basically to separate the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then we take the hydrogen, which is energy and combine it with carbon dioxide through a synthetic process to make methanol. The formula for methanol contains one carbon atom, four hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom,” Stefánsson said. Another oxygen atom would make the methanol a gas—methane.

The competitor to this methanol is normally made using natural gas or coal. “What we are making is not just a chemical; what we are making is an energy carrier for renewable power,” noted the director. From steam to a liquid fuel and this means the footprint for impact on the environment is totally different than from a regular fossil fuel.

“By eliminating this carbon dioxide that would have otherwise been admitted into the atmosphere, we are converting it into liquid fuel that has much greater value for fuel as a car than having electrons sitting somewhere in Iceland,” he concluded.

The other stop of the day during blizzard conditions was a greenhouse tour showing how a greenhouse nursery operation of 6,000 square meters produces lettuce and herbs year round using geothermal hot water for heat and being electrified by geothermal generated electricity.

Hafberg Thorisson, master grower and owner of Lambhagi nursery, explained how his operation works, which also demonstrates the potential for humongous greenhouse operations located near the geothermal electric plants. Thorisson explained how he established a lettuce market in Iceland because prior to his 1979 start up “nobody liked to eat salad here.” Taste sampling at grocery stores was one main way of promoting his leaf lettuces.

Thorisson is currently cooperating with China under a partial ownership stake in establishing greenhouses in China based around his model. He will also be erecting a greenhouse of piped hydroponics in 2013 to raise algae for Omega 3 oil for human consumption, cosmetics and medical purposes. This will be an export product from Iceland.




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