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About the author:

My engineering experience began as an apprentice electrician in Amarillo, Texas where I worked for Kellogg  Construction on a new refinery for the Shamrock Oil Corp.

Later I worked as a journeyman electrician in California with Pacific Gas and Electric at their geothermal power production field in Lake County.

In 1984 I moved to Alaska and initially worked at a ship repair facility at Dutch Harbor called Panama Marine. 

One weekend a pilot friend needed some air time, so he gave me a ride in his Jet bell Ranger up the Aleutian chain to a site where a crew was drilling test holes to evaluate geothermal potential in that area. The entire Aleutian Chain all the way to Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia is a volcanic archipelago with huge potential for power production.

When I returned to the mainland I lived in Anchorage and attended the University of Alaska between 1987 and 1993. In Anchorage I worked in oil production on the north slope when not attending school.

Early Interest:

When I was a kid my mother told me that Icelanders poked holes in a volcano and piped the heat and hot water into their homes.

I suspected from the beginning that it wasn't all that simple, and when I signed up for geology at Santa Rosa Jr. College, I soon discovered that people can get hurt getting heat that way.

The bridge between collecting heat from a dangerous place and delivering it to a safe place is called, "technology" It takes a lot of technology to safely tap a volcano and use the resources safely. But I am getting ahead of this story. Engineers in Iceland refer to their volcanic resources as, "Space Heating"


Oil and petroleum products:

Many technologically advanced countries around the world in one way or another use oil for space heat; they either burn oil for heat or burn the oil to turn generators to generate electricity and use the electricity to heat  resistance coils that generate space heat. Both methods are inefficient, especially the latter.

Iceland is rich in volcanoes and from the geology perspective, oil reserves sometimes exist near volcanoes. The volcanoes of Iceland set atop what may be big oil reserves, but given current technology, harvesting the oil is nearly impossible.

Between Iceland and Greenland, deep under the sea lie large oil reserves, very hard to harvest.  It is a long way from Iceland to the supply of oil in the North Sea, yet that is where most of the oil used in Iceland comes from.

About 90% oil imported to Iceland as oil, lubricant or gasoline is burned in vehicles and boats. The other expensive 10% is used to produce space heat.

But Iceland is also rich in other resources volcano generated steam and glacier fed fresh water in nearly endless supply. 

When I became interested in Iceland I immediately asked myself, how do they keep warm?

This Potted History will explain in non technical terms ( much as possible ) how they do that.

Copyright Potted Histories 1998

all rights reserved.


More about Volcanoes

First, The Fire. 

There are many volcanoes in Iceland and more than thirty of them are active. 

The volcano on the left is Krafla, near the geothermal borehole at Lanswerken Power Plant. 

Krafla Volcano is a very hot subject and graphically demonstrates the obvious dangers involved in developing geothermal resources.


This is the Binary Installation Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant on Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland.

Geothermal Plants basically come in two types, first to process hot water for heat. These are built over boreholes that produce hot water with little steam.

The second type of plant generates electricity. These are built over boreholes that produce lots of steam.

Provided by Business Week

There's nothing like a volcano to warm things up. And where there's heat,  there's power. 

This is Svartsengi Geo-thermal Plant in Keflavik, Iceland, located in the middle of an old lava field.

It processes and distributes hot water through a pipeline 190 miles long. This is a double use facility which also generates 8 megawatts of electricity for the regional grid. 

It is the water that draw the crowds. Aptly named Blue Lagoon, is waste brine from the plant, cooled to a balmy bath temperature. 

Photo by Geert Cederkvist

"From the Geothermal Power plant at Nesjavellir".

A guided tour of the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant shows visitors how to use geothermal energy to heat homes in Reykjavík and the surrounding area.

The tour continues with a drive around the shores of Thingvallavatn, Iceland's largest lake, to Thingvellir historic site of the Old Icelandic Parliament, now a  national park. 

Further surprises await on the return trip to Reykjavík, including the explosion crater Keriđ, the colourful birch woods at Thrastarlundur, and the garden village at Hveragerđi, with its hot springs and greenhouses.

The map on the left shows depicts Iceland features in color code; existing glaciers in white, volcanoes as red dots, old lava flows in rose and areas relatively ice free areas in green, purple for low coastal areas and gray for low coastal swampy areas.

See full size map at:     Map

The larger map permits one to read the schedule lower left.

Steam rising from geothermal borehole at Lanswerken Power Plant in Krafla Central Volcano, Iceland. Mt. Krafla is in the background.

Plants designed specifically to produce electricity are placed over boreholes that produce a lot of steam. The steam turns the turbines to generate electricity. Most of my geothermal experience is in this area.

A typical bi-production production module shown on the left. It uses steam to turn turbines to generate electricity, condenses the waste steam into hot water, and sends the processed, but not potable, water down a pipeline to town.

For those of you with a technical bent, read a full story of how the plants work.

How They Work

To the left is an interesting demonstration of what happens underground. Steam processing plants want very hot steam and lots of it, so such plants are placed over hot spots like the plumb demonstrated on the left.

As the plume expands, steam is ejected rapidly and at high temperatures, perfect for power generation.

Copyright Potted Histories 1988