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ENVIRONMENT: Iceland Teaches the World to Dig for Energy

Lowana Veal* - IPS/IFEJ

REYKJAVIK, Jun 20 2007 (IPS) - Icelanders more than anyone else find most of the energy they need beneath their feet.

Geothermal field in southern Iceland. Credit: Tim Bergel

Geothermal field in southern Iceland. Credit: Tim Bergel

In the world of renewable energy, this is geothermal energy, a way of tapping into the heat below the earth surface and turning it into heat and power.

As the debate on renewable energy rages around the world, Iceland meets 72 percent of its needs through renewable energy sources, mostly geothermal and hydroelectric. That compares to 13 percent worldwide, and seven percent in Europe.

Hot water for heating comes by drilling into hot rocks just below the surface. It is then collected in a pumping station and transported by pipes to central tanks, from where it is distributed to individual houses. In all 85 percent of houses in Iceland are heated by geothermal energy.

But such heat can be converted into electricity as well, using a complex system of boreholes, energy exchangers and turbines.

Icelandic leaders say they are keen to share know-how in geothermal energy with the rest of the world.

Since 1979 the National Energy Authority, the Orkustofnun, has run a United Nations University Geothermal Training Programme jointly sponsored by the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs (80 percent) and the UN (20 percent). The course lasts six months and includes considerable field work. Twenty-one students from 12 countries graduated last October.

Of the 39 countries that have sent people on the course, China has provided 64 participants, more than any other. So far 350 people have completed the course.

Proportionate to consumption, much of Icelandic energy is geothermal, but overall China uses the most geothermal energy in the world. As of the end of 2006, 3,200 geothermal areas had been listed in China, of which 255 are high-temperature areas suitable for generating electricity.

Icelandic companies, in conjunction with the Chinese company Shaanxi Green Energy, have just built a geothermal district heating system in Xian Yang in China which has the potential to become the largest such facility in the world.

The district utility Reykjavik Energy has also obtained a contract for geothermal research and utilisation in Djibouti, a small country in eastern Africa.

Use of geothermal energy is picking up, the Icelandic way. Kenya, the Philippines, Ethiopia and El Salvador have each sent more than 20 people on the geothermal training course; in these countries, geothermal energy provides 10 to 22 percent of energy needs.

Most participants come from developing countries that have significant geothermal potential. Some have come from Eastern Europe.

To be eligible, candidates must have a science or engineering degree, hold a permanent post in an energy authority, research institution or university, and have practical experience of at least a year in some form of geothermal work. An introductory course is followed by a choice of specialised courses.

The nine specialised courses are: reservoir engineering, chemistry of thermal fluids, geothermal utilisation, geological exploration, geophysical exploration, borehole geology, borehole geophysics, environmental studies, and drilling technology. The first three are by far the most popular.

“Generally they do well when they get home and have contributed significantly to energy development in their parts of the world,” course director Ingvar Fridleifsson told IPS. “We only choose fellows who have secure jobs with institutions or companies dealing with geothermal projects, and we teach them the things that will be the most useful to them in their home country.”

Some students, fellows as they are usually described, can undertake a higher course in geothermal sciences or engineering in conjunction with the University of Iceland. This option has only been available since 1999, but it is becoming increasingly popular. Currently there are eight fellows taking the course, from five countries. Two are women.

Saeid Nasrabadi is one of the students: “I was on the geothermal training programme in Iceland in 2004, then returned to my work as a civil engineer at the Sabalan geothermal field in the north-west of Iran,” he said. “Iran is similar to Iceland regarding geothermal science, except that in Iran the potential has not yet been exploited.”

In addition to operating within Iceland, the programme has also initiated short courses in Africa and Latin America, as a contribution to the Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight goals agreed by world leaders in 2000 to reduce poverty and promote health and education.

Next year, two international universities focusing on renewable energies will start operating in Iceland. One of them, in Akureyri in North Iceland, called the School for Renewable Energy Sciences (RES), will be privately run and will offer 11-month courses at university level.

Thorleifur Bjornsson is organising the programme. “The key target countries for students will be Eastern and Central Europe, including Poland and Hungary,” he told IPS. “When fully operational, we hope to cater for 50 to 80 students a year.” Russia will be another target country.

The other, Reykjavik Energy Graduate School of Sustainable Systems, is a cooperative project between Reykjavik Energy and two universities in Reykjavik and will cater for masters and doctorate students as well as offering shorter courses in technology, exploitation of renewable resources, and nature and the economic market.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service, and IFEJ – the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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