• Power Plan
    Valgar∂ur Lyngdall Jónsson is the public relations guide at Nesjavellir Power Plant.

    Photograph by Stuart Thornton

    Smoky Bay
    Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, means "smoky bay." The city does sit on a bay, Faxafloi Bay in southwestern Iceland. But there is no smoke! Early settlers thought steam rising from the area's geothermal vents and hot springs were smoke.

    By Stuart Thornton

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    Even though it’s a small country, Iceland is rich in natural resources. The island nation, which is about the size of the state of Kentucky, is located in the middle of the north Atlantic Ocean, between Greenland and Scandinavia. Cloud-colored glaciers cover mountain peaks, and waterfalls dangle like tinsel down cliff faces. Across certain areas of Iceland, geysers smoke like battlefields before erupting from the Earth in fire-hose-like blasts of hot water.

    Tucked under a volcanic region known as Hengill, surrounded by chunks of dark volcanic rock, the Nesjavellir Power Plant is a fine example of how Iceland harnesses its abundant natural resources for its citizens’ needs.

    Inside the white complex’s lobby, Nesjavellir Power Plant public relations guide Valgar∂ur Lyngdall Jónsson explains how the facility produces both hot water and energy from the area’s surroundings with minimal impact on the environment.

    Dressed in a light-blue collared shirt and black pants, Jónsson jabs a thumb towards the mountain above the power plant and says that it is an active volcano that last erupted 2,000 years ago. Currently, precipitation that falls on the nearby highlands seeps into the ground and becomes heated by hot bedrock. Bedrock is the solid rock beneath the Earth’s soil and sand. This bedrock has been warmed by its proximity to the volcano’s magma.

    Volcanic activity occurs in Iceland because the nation is situated on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, a boundary region where the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate are pulling apart. “We are basically standing on the rift itself,” Jónsson says. “We are standing on thin crust, so to speak.”

    Jónsson describes Iceland’s history of using the naturally warmed water beneath the island’s crust to heat buildings on the surface. This heating process is known as geothermal heating. Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and largest city, began to use hot water from under the Earth’s surface to heat a local school as far back as 1930, when Reykjavík District Heating was formed.

    After geothermal energy was discovered to be a feasible way to warm Iceland’s structures, drilling began in areas outside of Reykjavík. Engineers drilled in an attempt to uncover regions with supplies of geothermal water. In 1990, Reykjavík Energy, a utility company, opened Nesjavellir Power Plant in one of Iceland’s best geothermal areas. Today, there are six geothermal power plants in Iceland.

    Geothermal Power

    Leaving the lobby, Jónsson takes us upstairs to a spic-and-span corridor, where a set of windows overlook a room filled with gleaming metal pipes and containers. Here, he explains the three power-harnessing cycles of the power plant. First, the facility collects steam and hot water from 27 wells drilled into the ground. Second, the steam is channeled into steam turbines.

    A turbine is a machine that takes energy from a flow of fluid, such as water or air. The flow of steam into the turbines at Nesjavellir moves a generator that produces electricity. In the third cycle at Nesjavellir, six cold-water wells bring cooler water to the surface, which is heated by the steam collected during the creation of hot water.

    “Everything is done to utilize the energy as much as possible,” Jónsson says.

    The warm water created by the third cycle of the power plant is pumped up to the mountain above Nesjavellir via a pipeline. Then, the pipeline brings the warmed water 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) down to the residents of Reykjavík. The pipeline is so well-insulated that the water only loses 1.8° Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) on its journey. Jónsson says that just viewing the pipeline filled with heated water during the country’s colder months is a testament to how well the pipe is insulated. “In winter, when it snows, the snow doesn’t melt on top of the pipeline,” he says.

    Meanwhile, the electricity produced by Nesjavellir travels to an electricity network via a 31-kilometer (19.3-mile) transmission line before going to businesses and homes. The transmission line is buried underground for 13 of the 31 kilometers to minimize any negative effects to the environment.

    Jónsson admits that the power plant creates a by-product that is potentially detrimental to the environment. Nesjavellir releases steam containing small quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and hydrogen sulfide, which can transform into sulfur dioxide, a chemical compound that can cause acid rain.

    “This is a problem,” Jónsson says. “This is pollution, though it’s nothing compared to coal plants.”

    Renewable Energy Sources

    The public relations guide says that the critical factor at Nesjavellir is the water supply underneath us. As long as that water doesn’t run out, the power plant should be able to run for many more years. One way that Nesjavellir ensures that the water supply doesn’t dry up is by removing the wastewater from the power plant’s processes and putting it back into the system.

    “This is considered to be a renewable energy source,” Jónsson says of the water.

    Utilizing the by-products in every way possible, Reykjavík Energy also uses wastewater to help melt snow on Reykjavík’s sidewalks. After hot water has heated homes and businesses, it is transferred into small pipes laid under the city’s sidewalks. The heated water in the pipes melts ice and snow on the surface above during the country’s cold winter months.

    In addition, Nesjavellir and the other geothermal power plants in Iceland have generated an unexpected by-product from their energy creation: tourism. Jónsson says that Nesjavellir and the neighboring Hellishei∂i Geothermal Power Plant, which is still under construction, welcome between 6,000 and 8,000 tourists a month.

    The runoff water from another geothermal power plant, Svartsengi, has become the most popular tourist destination in Iceland: the Blue Lagoon. The milky blue pool of mineral-rich hot water has become a spa. The Blue Lagoon attracted more than 408,000 tourists (more people than the entire population of Iceland) in 2008.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abundant Adjective

    in large amounts.

    acid rain Noun

    precipitation with high levels of nitric and sulfuric acids. Acid rain can be manmade or occur naturally.

    bedrock Noun

    solid rock beneath the Earth's soil and sand.

    Encyclopedic Entry: bedrock
    boundary Noun

    line separating geographical areas.

    Encyclopedic Entry: boundary
    byproduct Noun

    substance that is created by the production of another material.

    capital Noun

    city where a region's government is located.

    Encyclopedic Entry: capital
    carbon dioxide Noun

    greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

    coal Noun

    dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

    electricity Noun

    set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

    feasible Adjective

    possible.

    generator Noun

    machine that converts one type of energy to another, such as mechanical energy to electricity.

    geothermal energy Noun

    heat energy generated within the Earth.

    geyser Noun

    natural hot spring that sometimes erupts with water or steam.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geyser
    glacier Noun

    mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: glacier
    greenhouse gas Noun

    gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

    harness Verb

    to control or guide for a specific purpose.

    hydrogen sulfide Noun

    chemical compound gas responsible for the foul odor of rotten eggs.

    magma Noun

    molten, or partially melted, rock beneath the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: magma
    Mid-Atlantic Ridge Noun

    underwater mountain range that runs from Iceland to Antarctica.

    minimal Adjective

    the lowest or least.

    natural resource Noun

    a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.

    precipitation Noun

    all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation
    renewable energy Noun

    energy obtained from sources that are virtually inexhaustible and replenish naturally over small time scales relative to the human life span.

    Scandinavia Noun

    region and name for some countries in Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.

    steam Noun

    water vapor.

    tectonic plate Noun

    large, moveable segment of the Earth's crust.

    tourism Noun

    the industry (including food, hotels, and entertainment) of traveling for pleasure.

    transmission line Noun

    group of electrical wires used to carry signals.

    turbine Noun

    machine that captures the energy of a moving fluid, such as air or water.

Tell us what you think