Geothermal Energy in Iceland

Grant Sivesind
December 3, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: The Strokkur Geyser in Iceland. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At a high level, the idea behind geothermal energy is to take the heat contained within the Earth and utilize it as a source of renewable energy. While the Earth contains an immense amount of energy stored as heat however, current techniques for utilization of this heat require specific conditions to be met in order to take advantage of the Earth's internal heat. First, there must be a carrier (either hot liquid water or steam will work) underground that acts as storage for the thermal energy in the form of heat. Second, the carrier must transfer the heat from deep underground to or near the surface. [1] In places where these criteria are met, geothermal energy can be an attractive means of obtaining renewable energy at an economically competitive cost.

The practice of using geothermal energy to directly generate electricity began in Europe after World War Two. At that time, many countries were in a difficult period economically, and they saw that geothermal energy was locally available, meaning no costs from importation. In some regions, geothermal energy was the only locally available energy source. This fact coupled with improvements in technology to utilize heat energy in the form of steam made it all the more viable and attractive. [2]

What Makes Iceland Special?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Iceland was a poor country that was dependent on expensive importations of coal and peat to meet their energy needs. In an effort to save money and ensure their own self sufficiency, Iceland turned to geothermal power. [2] While multiple countries made the same choice to look at geothermal energy as a potential alternative to expensive imported energy, Iceland stands out among the crowd for two reasons. First, Iceland is a perfect match for the checklist of criteria that are required in order to successfully harness geothermal energy. It is a mountainous, volcanic country with an abundance of geothermal reservoirs (see Fig 1). [2] Second, Iceland has been more successful than almost any other country when it comes to exploiting the natural geothermal resources that are available in their country. Iceland used geothermal energy to go from what was one of Europe's poorest countries, dependent upon peat and imported coal for its energy, to a country with a high standard of living where practically all stationary energy is derived from natural sources, the majority coming from geothermal energy. [3]

Why Does This Matter?

Iceland has been very successful in utilizing their natural resources in order to find affordable, renewable energy and are pioneers in the world of Geothermal energy, but what does this mean for the rest of the world? One of the most important aspects of Iceland's great usage of renewable resources is that it gives the rest of the developed world a pattern that they can follow to increase their renewable energy. While larger populations and less abundant natural resources make renewable energy challenging, Iceland gives a standard that the rest of the world can attempt to follow.

© Grant Sivesind. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. H. Dickson and M. Fanelli, Geothermal Energy: Utilization and Technology (Routledge, 2013).

[2] S. Björnsson, "Geothermal Development and Research in Iceland," Orkustofnun, February 2010.

[3] J. W. Lund and T. L. Boyd, "Direct Utilization of Geothermal Energy - 2015 Worldwide Review," Geothermics 60, 66 (2016).