Audur Bjorg Sigurjonsdottir is the Director of Iceland’s Geothermal Energy Exhibition. The interview took place in June 2015 at the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, the largest in Iceland…
EarthTalk: Could you give me a brief history of geothermal in Iceland and how it got to be such an important source of energy for you?
Sigurjonsdottir: Yes, the brief history of Iceland starts in 1930 because of need, we had to do something to heat our houses. Then 1930 marks the beginning of the heated district in Reykjavik, which is the biggest user of geothermal. And before we were using coal and then oil. It came out of need, because we heat our houses 365 days a year, so it’s very important. It’s cheap, it’s clean, and it’s environmentally friendly. And now 90 percent of all houses in Iceland are heated with geothermal and 99.9 percent of all houses in Reykjavik and neighboring towns in the area are heated with geothermal.
E: And I gather that you used to use coal from the United Kingdom and that was really environmentally harmful.
Sigurjonsdottir: It was of course, it was very expensive and of course it caused a lot of pollution. There were only under 200 thousand people living here in Iceland at that time so maybe the pollution was not on a very big scale but it was of course pollution, but it was very expensive. It was a poor nation, hard living here, so we said geothermal is saving our economy and now we have better homes, we have better health, and we are better off and we have better air quality.
E: Great, so for you it’s economic first.
Sigurjonsdottir: It was economic first but of course we are now, the CO2 emissions from the house heating dropped down. Mainly in 1972 the oil crisis, because it started with coal and then with oil, and in 1997 we had the oil crisis the full effort was added to the geothermal heating district, everywhere it was possible in Iceland and then the emissions dropped down.
E: So it was a response to conditions. So this particular plant, which I’m going to mispronounce as Hellisheidi…
Sigurjonsdottir: Hellisheidi, ya, Hellisheidi.
E: I won’t even try again. So when was this plant built and why is this an especially significant plant?
Sigurjonsdottir: It was taken in 2006 within two years production for 90 MW, now the output is 300 MW in [inaudible] and 400 MW in [inaudible]. It was located here because of the possibility to, it was built for hot water production; it’s located here because it’s only 30 kilometers form Reykjavik and water can be let to Reykjavik.
E: So basically it’s hot water, it’s heating for homes, and it’s electricity, right?
Sigurjonsdottir: Yes, this is one of 6 thermal power plantsin Iceland, this is the biggest one in Iceland and the newest. We have three that are combined heat and power.
E: And I gather it’s also the second biggest on the planet.
Sigurjonsdottir: Yes, so they say. I’m always afraid of saying that something is the biggest on the Earth.
E: It depends how you measure it probably.
E: And can you talk a little bit more, what’s the impact on climate change versus say a coal plant?
Sigurjonsdottir: There’s a lot of difference.
E: They’re so different.
Sigurjonsdottir: They’re so different. We know that a coal fired power plant is, the CO2 emission from a coal fired power plant is the same amount for one week that this one is for one year.
E: Okay so, 52 times better.
Sigurjonsdottir: Yes, 52 times better.