THE hot volcanic vents of Iceland may be harnessed to bring electrical power to mainland Europe and Britain if a plan to pipe geothermal energy under the North Sea comes to fruition.
In a project reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the Icelandic government is proposing to drill three miles through the Earth's crust into the hot basalt below to tap into temperatures of up to 600C.
The same intense heat that causes the mud to bubble and geysers to steam on Iceland's moonlike surface will be used to create steam to drive turbines, generating enough energy to power up to 1.5m homes in Europe.
The Icelandic National Energy Authority signed a deal last month with Energie Baden-Württemberg, the German energy company, that could lead to the resulting electricity being transmitted to Europe along a 1,200-mile seafloor cable. It would be capable of carrying energy to Britain's national grid before reaching Germany.
The Icelandic government believes the growing market for clean energy and the availability of new technology will justify the expense of drilling deeper than ever before - and provide a return on the multi-billion-pound investment required.
Thorkell Helgason, director of the energy authority, said engineers from Germany had visited Iceland last autumn. They have now signed a memorandum of understanding to begin exploratory drilling through Iceland's thin crust.
"They are prepared to contribute considerable amounts of money," Helgason told Fretta-bladid, an Icelandic newspaper. "Their vision is that in the distant future they can transport considerable amounts of geothermal electricity from Iceland to Germany via an ocean-floor cable."
The "hot rocks" international power system will take at least a decade to switch on. Laying the cable is likely to be the biggest challenge since it will have to negotiate undersea mountains on the North Sea floor, which is already crisscrossed by pipelines and other cables.
Connections that come ashore in northern Scotland and northeast England are being considered. An earlier study by Pirelli Cable estimated that two submarine cables to Germany are likely to cost up to £2.3 billion.
Energy experts believe that less than a fifth of Iceland's vast nonpolluting hydroelectric power and geothermal energy resources have been tapped.
By drilling more than twice as deep into the earth as current practice, each borehole can provide up to 10 times more energy, engineers estimate. "The export of electricity via a submarine cable to the UK or continental Europe has come into focus as a viable option," says a briefing paper published by Landsvirkjun, Iceland's national energy company.
"This is due to rapid technological advancement in the performance of direct current submarine cables and the need to exploit green energy resources."
Engineers from the German power company are returning to Iceland for further negotiations later this month. Iceland has recently acquired special drills capable of tapping into the hottest basalt, just above the magma chamber, where the rock is verging on the molten.
"I think the cable will be realised at last," said Helgason. "By connecting to Europe it will increase the stability of our system. But this is our energy and we will decide how it is distributed."