Amongst the many common facts about Iceland (Björk, Chess in Reykjavik, and Viking Sagas), many know the island’s nickname, “The Land of Fire and Ice.” Beautiful landscapes draw tourists to volcanos and geysers, contributing to an internationally renowned clean energy model that derives 99% of power from clean energy through a combination of geothermal and hydropower sources. The geothermal element of this framework is vital for the model’s success and profitability. The conventional wisdom once posited that Iceland’s energy model was unique and could not be widely exported and replicated. Now, thanks to a series of scientific innovations, Iceland may end up as a model for energy policy in many countries and regions worldwide.
Efficient natural geothermal energy extraction requires the concentrated occurrence of three factors: 1) permeable land, 2) underground heat, and 3) water. This manifests as active volcanoes, geothermal vents, hot springs, and geysers. The geological activity keeps the temperature inside the Earth high, allowing extractable energy to be accessed from the planet’s surface. If even one characteristic is lacking, geothermal production at scale is difficult. This is why even tectonically active areas such as Japan, Patagonia, East Africa, and New Zealand have historically lagged in geothermal production and why it is so rare.
While Iceland is fortunate in that it has all three required characteristics for accessible geothermal energy, the Icelandic Model of geothermal energy is not merely due to natural endowments. The Icelandic Model relies on creating positive feedback loops where geological activity complements the strengths and weaknesses of other green power sources instead of only generating electricity for consumption. In principle, Iceland could utilize its geothermal energy far more for everything. Instead, its geothermal energy helps to supplement solar panels, make hydropower more consistent, heats up carbon capture technology, and more. Using geothermal as a force multiplier made Iceland one of the most energy-efficient nations on earth. Now, new tech is bringing these gains elsewhere.
Japan, one of the most tectonically active countries on earth, is at the cutting edge of this geothermal energy extravaganza, marrying it to tidal energy. The IHI Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are jointly working on an experimental tidal energy generator, Kairyu, which is already taking advantage of the Kuroshio Current east of Honshu. By anchoring the floating or submergible turbine on top of a flexible series of cables, Kairyu will capture thermal energy from the ocean floor and the tide. Their competitor, Chubu Electric and Toshiba Energy Systems, have decided to stick to land, using advanced drilling technology to efficiently pull geothermal energy from deep underground.
Chile, in energy circles mostly known for lithium extraction and nationalization controversies, has put some of its hope on energy diversification via geothermal sources. Chile has already begun a widescale transition to using solar and wind power, but this suffers from the common problem of energy inconsistency. Drawing from Iceland’s experience, Chile wants to use geothermal to supplement the consistency of its other energy sources. This is done with a new technology that mixes the technical lessons gained from hydraulic fracking by reusing old oil and gas wells to dig even deeper and extract geothermal energy. These initiatives are being spearheaded by Italian company Enel Green Power, which opened the first Geothermal Plant in Chile. The Chilean government has already planned for more geothermal, empowering the Chilean Center for Geothermal Excellence.
Chevron and BP recognize the potential of the technology being tested in Chile, recently investing $40 million into the new earth heat drilling technologies.
Geothermal energy is also making inroads in Africa, a continent suffering from energy scarcity. The Kenyan Olkaria III binary cycle plant is run by Ormat Technologies, a global renewables and geothermal leader with Israeli roots for extracting geothermal energy at shallower depths in the East African Rift zone. This project has received widespread attention from international developmental organizations since its success could be scaled up into more affordable and cleaner energy for impoverished regions which desperately need it.
There is no reason the United States cannot follow in the footsteps of these foreign energy companies. Currently, the United States woefully underinvests in geothermal energy. There are only geothermal plants in 7 US states, despite being practical in many more. The flagship geothermal project in the United States, Sonoma 3, is an obsolete project built before modern insights and tech transformed geothermal energy. In the rare cases that geothermal does enter consideration for the American energy portfolio, it almost always misses the key insights we should be drawing from the rest of the world. Geothermal energy is useful because its reliability allows it to supplement higher volume but less reliable renewable energy sources.
Unfortunately, the paltry 74 million dollars directed by the Biden administration toward geothermal is insufficient to address this problem. The private sector isn’t much better, with America’s best geothermal companies lagging behind foreign competitors. Unless the private and public sectors jointly develop breakthrough, economically efficient tech, gigawatts of energy beneath our feet will continue to be wasted.