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Businesses See Green in Iceland's Volcano Power
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Businesses See Green in Iceland's Volcano Power

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Iceland lives up to its name. It's cold and frosted with glaciers. It also owes its existence to hot rock. Volcanoes are continually reshaping this island in the North Atlantic Ocean. The hot rocks are an ideal energy source, one that's much cleaner and less expensive than fossil fuels. And it's not just Iceland that can benefit from this type of energy.

NPR's Richard Harris reports as part of our Climate Connections series with National Geographic.

RICHARD HARRIS: I'm standing in the lobby of the Viking Hotel in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. There's some old decor around here, like horsehide upholstery on some of the chairs and so on, but there's also a lot of modern appliances and there's a computer, a television, and of course lights everywhere. They are powered by 100 percent clean energy.

(Soundbite of water)

HARRIS: Reykjavik's wonderful outdoor swimming pools are even open all winter because the water is heated by a volcano.

(Soundbite of restaurant)

HARRIS: This little restaurant in the town of Nubonin(ph) gets its heat from pipes of hot water that runs throughout the town. Again, the pipes carry water that is naturally heated by volcanic rock.

And people in Iceland even go outside on a freezing cold night with almost no clothes on because they know the hot tub is full of water that has been piped up from deep underground, and it is warm.

(Soundbite of bubbling)

HARRIS: And this sound isn't a Jacuzzi; it's a natural mud pot - stinky, sulfurous gases and bubbling mud emerge from underground all over Iceland's austere landscape. It's an unmistakable sign that this place is alive with volcanoes.

Hot liquid rock oozes up from deep in the Earth and gradually reshapes this island. That heat is also ideal for producing electricity. And Icelanders take advantage of that. For example, they have built a power plant in the midst of a rugged black and red moonscape. The Krafla power plant sits by a steaming creek in a treeless valley. The plant is fed by silver pipes that carry steam down from the barren hills that surround it.

(Soundbite of steam)

HARRIS: This is the sound of raw power. This is the sound of steam coming up from a mile on a half underground. And it is just pouring out the top of this wellhead here. Pretty soon they're going to cap it off and capture the steam and pipe it down to the power plant, where they can use it to generate electricity.

These are man-made geysers. And who can resist free energy from underground? There's a lot of it around the globe, if you know how to get it - and that's the trick. Drilling deep holes into volcanoes turns out to be dangerous business. Construction of this plant in the 1970s was interrupted by dramatic eruptions at a nearby volcano. And even when those subsided, there were other troubles.

Engineer Bjarni Palsson from the National Power Company, takes us through the rain to the edge of a large crater in the hills above the Krafla power plant.

Mr. BJARNI PALSSON (Engineer): Well number four in this area was being drilled at this site here when suddenly an underground explosion, steam explosion, managed to get its way to surface.

HARRIS: People drilling the hole with a giant rig were just able to pull it out of the way and get to safety when, boom, the steam exploded and dug a crater that's more than 100 feet deep and about as wide. Palsson peers down into it and shakes his head.

Mr. PALSSON: This is a very good lesson. Before we start any project or especially if we have any new people coming in, if they come here and tell us this is what can happen if you do the slightest mistake.

HARRIS: They named the crater Manmade Hell and moved on. Another well had to be abandoned when the drillers hit red-hot molten rock. It shot up through the hole and onto the surface, obviously ruining the hole, but at least not claiming any lives.

So success in this business means you need to know how to read the geology deep underground in order to tame the power of volcanoes. Icelanders have learned those lessons the hard way, and they have built up a world class geothermal energy business in the process.

Mr. ASGEIR MARGEIRSSON (President, Geysir Green Energy): Most of the geothermal development for the last 10 years actually has been in Iceland.

HARRIS: Aseir Margeirsson heads up a new geothermal energy company called Geysir Green Energy.

Mr. MARGEIRSSON: There has been a lot of development here, whereas there has been some sort of stagnation in the other countries, and not too much new development, like the U.S. or New Zealand or Italy, until recently.

HARRIS: We meet Margeirsson back at the Viking hotel in Reykjavik. He tells us this city now relies on geothermal energy, along with hydroelectric dams for its electricity. And the city also gets its hot water directly from underground.

Mr. MARGEIRSSON: In the '60s, every single home had an oil tank in their back yard and there were oil trucks running around the streets pouring oil into these tanks. And at that time the heating costs for the homes were similar with oil and geothermal.

HARRIS: But Reykjavik took a big gamble. It drilled wells to tap into underground hot water, then built a system of pipes throughout the entire city to circulate this hot water through radiators in homes and offices. The gamble paid off big time.

Mr. MARGEIRSSON: Today, it would cost us five times more to heat our homes with oil than it is costing with geothermal.

HARRIS: People in this far northern country barely even think about their heating bills - and they leave their windows cracked open even when it gets cold.

Margeirsson's company is now in business to export this technology to other parts of the world. It's good for the climate since it doesn't involve burning fossil fuels. And it's becoming more attractive, even in places that aren't as obviously volcanic as Iceland.

California already generates more geothermal electricity than all of Iceland, and the industry in the United States is ripe for expansion. It's potentially a huge market for this upstart Icelandic company, thanks to new measures to encourage development of clean, renewable energy.

Mr. MARGEIRSSON: Each state has its renewable portfolio standard, setting the goal of 20 percent renewable by 2020 in California, or something like that.

HARRIS: Sounds as though in some ways Governor Schwarzenegger has really helped you build a business.

Mr. MARGEIRSSON: You're right about that, actually. With our technology (unintelligible) investment abilities, there is a window open for us to do something.

HARRIS: Margeirsson says the company is already making some big investments in California - and elsewhere.

Mr. MARGEIRSSON: We do operate a district heating system in China, for example. And I like telling the story about that, because what we did is that we drilled a couple of wells, we started to pump up hot water, we diverted through pipes into homes, and we abandoned and tore down two coal-fired heating stations.

HARRIS: That's a tantalizing taste of what geothermal could do around the globe. According to one estimate, it could ultimately provide 10 percent of America's electricity. Margeirsson says people just need to take the risk, the way his country did a few decades ago.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can view the path of molten rock as it's transformed into clean energy at npr.org/climateconnections. You can also see videos of climate science in action from public television's "Wild Chronicles."

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