Chloe Foster-Chambers writes about her experience travelling to Iceland as part of The GREEN Program. The program focused on evaluating the energy sector in Iceland and its potential application in the UK. Chloe’s travel to Iceland was funded thanks to the Happold Foundation’s Travel Scholarship initiative.
My time in Iceland on the Green Programme was truly eye opening, providing me with an increased technical understanding of different renewable energy systems and inspiration to work towards a greener future. The programme consisted of several different components; classroom lectures, the Capstone Project, industry access to power plants and outdoor activities showcasing Iceland’s scenic landscapes due to its unique geographical location. The programme’s main focus was on renewable energy and sustainability as the country is a prime example of successful integration of renewable energy, namely geothermal, hydro-electric and bio fuels. This paper will discuss my learning outcomes and indicate how the benefits of the energy sector in Iceland can be implemented in other countries.
The GREEN Program Itinerary
The lectures were very informative and covered the following topics; an introduction to Iceland’s geography, geothermal power, hydro-electric power and energy economics. These were led by lecturers from Reykjavik University in which all mentioned how these energy systems were applied in Iceland to generate electricity and/or hot water. It was interesting to study economics as it was my first time covering this topic, learning about supply and demand to society. The material on geothermal and hydro power built on my basic knowledge, furthering definitions, equations and different types of systems. I was surprised at the statistics for the amount of undeveloped hydropower available worldwide, with a predicted 42% of undeveloped hydropower in Europe alone. This emphasised to me that there is a big global market for the development of renewable energy power plants.
Gunnuhver Geothermal Springs
The site visits to working power plants gave me a first-hand insight into how these plants operate. I believe that by actually seeing the plants in operation, it seems more achievable to integrate these into future plans for energy generation. In addition, I hope that during my career I will be able to use my knowledge and experiences to increase the use of renewable energy sources into the design of infrastructure or use sustainable methods for construction. It has inspired me to strategically design and engineer to reduce fuel emissions, decrease energy consumption and work towards a greener future.
Amongst these academic activities, we also had the chance to experience Iceland’s unique landscapes such as waterfalls, National Parks and glaciers. I was mesmerised by the outstanding beauty and it emphasised the importance to treasure these natural sites and minimise the effect due to global warming. The glaciers are already melting year on year and it is for this reason that I want to follow on from this programme with the mind-set to protect our environment through the implementation of sustainable technology and engineering.
Global Sustainable Development
At present, there is a need to transform the world in terms of sustainable development, which consists of three core elements; economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. In order to work towards a better future, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been created and are aimed over 15 years until 2030. These goals apply to all countries to end extreme poverty. To achieve these goals, multiple sectors are to work together such as academic, government, business, civil etc. The goals are inter-connected and therefore it is difficult to succeed in one goal without considering other goals, thus making it complicated. Along with the 17 goals are 169 global targets, with each nation having its own priorities.
In order to achieve the SDGs it is crucial to adopt key innovations to enable countries around the world to move faster in fighting poverty, to be more productive in agriculture, to make the transition from a high carbon energy system to a low or near zero carbon energy system, to protect ecosystems, to provide better jobs through better training, and through the new dynamic advanced technology sectors of an economy. The use of information and communications, new materials and renewable energies all help make the goals achievable.
One method to achieve sustainable development is the implementation of decarbonisation strategies; energy efficiency, decarbonisation of electricity, and end use of fuel and switch to electric sources. This means the use of new advanced renewable energy sources. Deep carbonisation is a change of energy technologies often used in new cutting edge approaches such as advanced photovoltaics and management of smart-grids that are based on low carbon energy sources. It is energy that can help solve food issues because the use of clean sustainable energy allows the running of greenhouses. For this reason, Iceland is the largest producer of bananas in Europe. A combination of rising oil prices and poor environmental impacts indicate a move to renewable energy is needed.
Fridheimar tomato greenhouse
Renewable Energy in Iceland
Over the last century, the use of hydropower and geothermal energy has notably increased in Iceland, with coal previously accounting for 70% of the primary energy usage and oil accounting for around 13%. The use of coal as a primary energy source has been reduced dramatically, and has remained at less than 5% of the primary energy use since approximately 1960. Renewable energy now accounts for 80% of Iceland’s energy demand, with the 20% fossil fuels mainly for the transportation industry. More importantly, in 2013 the generation of electricity by hydropower and geothermal was 71% and 29% respectively. Not only does the integration of renewable energy help towards environmental sustainability, it all improves social inclusion through opportunities for science and engineering graduates and entrepreneurs. In addition, there are economic benefits due to direct savings and diversification of income.
The production of energy via hydropower is the transformation of energy as follows:
Potential energy – Kinetic energy – Mechanical energy – Electrical energy
When designing a hydro power station, it is important to understand the different typologies, based on the energy requirement and the environment. The minimum energy demand for one day is known as the base load demand. The run-of-river hydropower type is best suited in providing a constant base load supply, as there is little flexibility in changing the water flow. In the event that more flexibility in power generation is required, a storage hydropower plant may be more suitable. As the name suggests, this plant has a level of storage capacity, to provide a combination of base and peak load. In contrast to the run-of-river hydropower, pumped-storage hydropower is a method that utilises a pump between levelled reservoirs to provide the peak load, and therefore has the most flexibility. Another form of hydropower is offshore hydropower which consists of wave and tidal technologies.
Due to Iceland’s natural landscape, hyropower has been seamlessly incorporated into the river network, another example is Norway, and I believe this can be transferred to the UK. However, there are also two main challenges associated with hydropower; water flow variation due to climate change and sedimentation. In order to overcome these issues, sustainable methods need to be considered to prevent the loss of storage capacity and damage to the turbines. Another foreseeable opposition to hydropower in the UK is the visual pollution of a power station in rural locations, common sites of rivers. In order to overcome this, educational facilities should be incorporated and a long-term outlook should be emphasised to provide a ‘greener’ electricity supply.
Small scale Ljosarvirkjun hydro plant located on a farm
Geothermal energy is caused by radioactive decay in the earth’s core, and hence is location specific, tending towards tectonic zones such as Iceland, Italy and Japan. To utilise the heat from the earth’s core, a working fluid, usually in the form of water, is required to transport the heat to the earth’s surface. There are two types of geothermal reservoirs; high temperature >200oC at depths below 1km suitable for electricity production and low temperature reservoirs suitable for house heating. The UK industry has already integrated ground source heat pumps, however the opportunity to utilise high temperature reservoirs is not as active.
The working fluid can be used directly for bathing, house heating and greenhouses, or indirectly so the fluid transfers its thermal energy to electrical energy to provide power. The direct use of geothermal energy assists in the success of fish farming and greenhouses in Iceland. In addition, the direct fluid is used for snow melting of the pavements, which helps sustain Reykjavik during the winter. The decision to transition from oil to geothermal for space heating, means a huge economic saving due to increase and uncertainty in oil prices. As a result, Iceland can be more self-sustained and less reliant on the global market, unlike the UK. It is imperative that more countries work towards sustainable development, ‘to meet the needs of the present without compromising the future’. Where suitable geothermal reservoirs are known, I believe it is key to grasp this renewable energy supply as it is a reliable and continuous energy supply, suitable for supplying the base load. For geothermal plants to be efficient and effective, it is important to estimate the energy demand as these plants cannot be turned off/on easily therefore it cannot follow the energy demand. As a result, a long-term design should be developed in order to allow the possibility of expansion in the future when the base load increases.
In contrast to the continuing development of sustainable primary energy generation in Iceland, the majority of transportation is powered by the conventional fuels, yet there are many renewable resources in the form of electric vehicles, hydrogen or methanol. The next step for Iceland is to transform the transportation sector in terms of energy usage, to ensure it corresponds to the positive movement of primary energy usage. In the future, it is predicted that Iceland will harness an increased amount of wind power and ocean power, which are both plentiful. Another more widespread idea for the foreseeable future is constructing a connection to Europe, so Iceland can use its renewable energy sources to produce electricity outside of its own country.
Iceland’s government has long been supporting the integration of renewable energy and sustainable development for many decades. The policies reach out to inspire students, entrepreneurs and the public to encourage a ‘green’ mind-set. The following lay out the aims of the energy policies set by Iceland’s government:
- Support the research and development of green fuels.
- Development of buildings to utilise the steam from geothermal power stations for better utilisation of energy sources.
- Replace imported fuels with renewable energy.
- Avoid aggressive energy development through geothermal and hydro stations.
- Encourage similar energy pricing between different industries.
- Alternative energy supply for transport
Iceland has been successful in working towards a lower carbon footprint, but requires further work in order to reach a carbon neutral status, most notably the transport sector.
A key method to drive sustainable development is to promote good practice by implementing consequences on organisations that contribute to the greenhouse effect such as gas emissions. There are numerous benefits of switching to renewable energy; CO2 reduction, energy security, economic development and industrial development. To push this mentality forward, policies are required to negatively impact the fossil fuel companies whilst providing benefits to renewable energy technology. Such policies are as follows:
- Feed in tariffs- the renewable energy company has a guaranteed price of energy for a considerable time frame.
- Tenders- selecting of the best bidder to carry out installation of a required technology at the lowest price.
- Tax incentives- supports renewable energy through tax deductions.
- Direct cash grants- can improve profit for investors by assisting with investment costs, therefore makes renewable options more favourable.
It is evident that the UK government has already adopted the concept of energy policy by providing feed in tariffs where individual energy generators receive a set tariff for generating their own energy. I believe the making of such policies shows that the UK government has an interest for developing sustainable energy. The next step is to target energy companies and commercial investors to stimulate the growth of renewable energy power stations.
The Capstone Project
The Capstone Project was group work in which we decided to develop a system to both improve the efficiency of flash steam geothermal plants and minimise the fuel emissions by retrofitting them to be a hybrid plant. The retro fit involves fitting a heat exchanger with working fluid into the system. We choose to improve existing power plants because it is feasible to implement a binary system to existing flash steam geothermal plants. Another benefit of binary systems is that they do not release geothermal fluids into the environment. It is estimated that a flash steam plant emits 397 lb CO2/MWh compared to a binary system which has no emissions due to 100% reinjection. Binary systems utilise low temperature reservoirs and are a more common choice of system for non-tectonic locations. This suggests that if a suitable geothermal reservoir was found in the UK, most likely the further research into the Devon and Cornwall area, a binary system could be most suited.
In terms of a business model, we addressed a number of criteria to replicate if this concept would work in the real world. Firstly, we named our customer segments as follows; energy suppliers, investors and the public. In order to promote this retrofit system we plan to hold a booth at energy conferences, carry out on-site evaluations for the client, introduce services in energy magazine articles and publicise video footage explaining the improvement process. We realised that the cost of retrofitting existing power plants would be huge, but with the ever stricter government legislation on fuel emissions, we hope this solution to emissions will help power plants improve their carbon footprint. To encourage energy companies and investors to invest in this system, tax incentives could be introduced alongside environmental policies.
I thoroughly enjoyed this task as it allowed us to be creative with our ideas and apply our knowledge to solve a real life problem. The project helped develop my research, innovation and public speaking skills as we had to present our business model idea to the student group and academics from Reykjavik University. Working alongside new people also meant I feel more confident putting my ideas across and improved my teamwork ability, taking hold of each person’s strongest skillset.
Overall my experience of The GREEN Program was fulfilling, providing me with an insight into the successful integration of renewable energy and an outlook on the benefits of sustainable development. I will endeavour to use this experience to help make decisions throughout my career.