Saturday, October 22, 2016

Clean Energy Spotlight: Iceland's Geothermal Energy and Thermal Pools

Once a poorest country in Europe now has one of the top living standards and all thanks to geothermal energy, this can be a short description of Iceland's geothermal energy story! Having located on both Iceland Hotspot and North Atlantic Ridge this is comparatively a newly formed land and has has highest geological activity in the form of volcanoes and geysers. Iceland is mainly developed and inhabited along the coast line as the central uninhibited part of Iceland is consist of highlands, volcanoes, geysers and lava field.
Hellisheidarvirkjun geothermal station
It's capital Reykjavik, the most northerly capital in the world also got it's name from this geothermal phenomenon. The first explorer wrongly thought the steam coming from land as smoke and so he gave name 'Smokey Bay' i.e Reykjavik!

Previously considered a gift from devil, people were scared of geothermal energy till 18th century but slowly they started using hot water from natural geothermal springs for daily use and then Iceland pioneered use of geothermal power in space heating! 25% of country's energy demand is served by geothermal energy plants.

Iceland is almost 100% powered by clean energy out of which 75 % is hydroelectric power and 25 % is geothermal energy. Geothermal energy is mainly used for space heating (for homes, offices, parking, roads), hot water, hot water for farming in green houses, thermal pools etc. There are currently 9 geothermal power plants in Iceland, most of them can be run by only 2 people! These power plants provide in excess of 5000 GWh of electricity per year. Iceland has one of the largest geothermal power plant Hellisheidi Power Station, which gives maximum output of 303MW of electricity and owned by the capital city of Reykjavik.
Blue Lagoons
The famous Blue lagoons is actually a reservoir of run off water from a geothermal power plant situated in 800-year-old lava field in the heart of the Reykjanes Peninsula – a UNESCO Geopark and holds nine million liters of geothermal seawater and it's recirculated every 40 hours. Unfortunately I could not visit Blue lagoons this time because I didn't get booking as per my convenience but if you are planning to visit it book it few weeks early and don't forget to check out a short walk around to see the lava field.

But then you can't really skip thermal pools when you are in Iceland and I got opportunity to visit Fotana Spa during golden circle trip and a public pool in Reykjavik!

Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths

Laugarvatn Fontana
Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal baths is located just next to Lake Laugarvatn on golden circle route. There are three hot springs at the shore of the lake Laugarvatn and Fontana spa is built on of these geothermal springs. There are all open air pools of different temperature in the Fontana facility surrounded by beautiful stone artwork. I visited Fontana on a stormy day, already being start of winter it was cold (may be a lot cold for me) and on the top of it it was windy and raining. But I would say it was a perfect day to visit thermal pool! It was tricky to reach pools from changing and shower area wearing just swimming suite in that weather but worth the relaxing time I spent in geothermal pool.

It was so soothing to just relax in mineral rich natural hot spring and was even more memorable I
Steam rooms at Fontana
think because of sharing experiences and having a great talk in that pool with travelers from around the world right from Europe, south America, Canada, and even Australia and so on! No doubt spending time in thermal pools must be Icelander's favorite past-time!

After my body was totally relaxed in bath, it was much harder this time to get out of the pool and walk upto shower room in very cold and windy evening! But all thanks to geothermal steam rooms on the way, where I took refuge on that hardest short walk in my life! Hot, healing steam simmer directly from the ground through grids in the wooden cabin floors of these steam rooms, an experience not to be missed!

Laugardalslaug, Reykjavik

Geothermal baths at Laugardalslaug
Another thermal pool experience I got was at Laugardalslaug, it's a great place for families with kids as there are indoor and outdoor swimming pool, largest in city, water slides, hot baths and tubs, baby pool, sauna, beach volleyball court with sand and mini golf course. It's fun to swim or relax with locals here! But what I loved the most about it was a insider tour I got with technical head of the facility!
Hot Baths
Being a sustainability engineer by profession, it was on top of my list to get to see a technical part of this geothermal energy utilization. Isleifur Fridriksson was so kind to spare some time and took me to the basement to show their plant rooms and on the tour of the facility! Started his career as blacksmith, worked at oldest thermal pool in Iceland, passionate about outdoor lifestyle, a part time tourist guide Isleifur is member of Icelandic Glacier Research Society and is very busy at 60 and still loves to climb mountains!
Isleifur Fridriksson, Laugardalslaug Technical head
The hot water coming from geothermal station is at 90 degrees so the Heat Exchanger reduces the water temperature to 28 degrees for swimming pools. 100 tonnes of water is recycled everyday. The thin layer of water from swimming pool consist of impurities is discarded and only 10 fresh water is added on daily basis.
Water Filters in Plant Room
These huge water filters are used to filter the water during water recycling process. The sustainability features of these thermal pools don't end here. Isleifur informed me they were previously using industrial chlorine but industrial chlorine lead to corrosion so since few years they now making their chlorine out of food-grade salt by using electrolysis process! Which is milder and so safer and healthier for people in swimming pool and don't corrode anything in back of the house. I was thoroughly impressed by the system here and the geothermal energy application in this country! One can even visit Geothermal Energy Exhibition Hellisheiði Power Plant outside Reykjavik!

Geothermal Energy in Reykjavik

The Perlan (The pearl) structure on Öskjuhlið hill, south of downtown Reykjavík popular for great views of city from their is actually another spot for geothermal power! These 6 large cylinders are actually storage tanks of hot water to meet periodic changes in demand. Unlike other tourists I visited the site just to see if I can find out more about geothermal energy here. I found some interesting photos hanging in the lower ground floor and nothing much. But when I walked around the building I could find some interesting structure or possible exhaust vents and may be plant room's viewing windows.

When you are in Iceland you can't fail to notice abundant geothermal energy be it steam coming from geothermal power plants on your road trips or frequent sighting of boreholes in Reykjavik! Though the geothermal (hot) water distribution system is underground in cities like Reykjavik, I could spot numerous bore holes during my walks in city. In general these are stainless steel structures and you can see steam rising from exhaust vents!
Bore Holes in Reykjavik
I even used a geothermal steam vent pipes in Ingólfstorg square (in front of tourist information center) as hand warmers! Not just buildings but even sidewalks in cities are heated by geothermal energy so no need to shovel snow in winter!  Every time you take shower in Iceland and you don't like the smell, that is because of the sulphur in water as all hot water supplied to building is heated by using geothermal energy!
Vent pipes in Ingólfstorg square

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Katla GeoPark in South Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland is known as land of fire and ice! This land has highest volcanic activity in the world and at the moment there are 3 volcanoes overdue, ready to erupt almost anytime. But it's the safest country in the world (apart from volcanic eruption)! The crime rate is so low here that Iceland has more number of volcanoes than their police force! Seriously, it's not a joke! They have 300 police but total 800 volcanoes out which 200 are active! There are around 13 glaciers in Iceland, but it's not really ice everywhere as it name might suggest! It becomes winter wonderland and covered in snow in winter of course, but truth is Iceland is more green than it's neighboring Greenland!

So it's almost mandatory to see at least one glacier and one volcano when you go to Iceland! And for that you should take tour of south coast route in Katla Geopark! Katla Geopark is one of the UNESCO global geo-parks. On my second day in Iceland I went on south coast tour with Iceland Horizon and fall in love with this country!

Hekla and E15 Volcano

E15 Volcano under Eyjafjallajokull Glacier
As we left Reykjavik first volcano we could see from the road was Mount Hekla. It is known as gateway to heaven. Because of widespread fear about this volcano in local culture nobody dared to climb it till 18th century! Hekla is one of the overdue, ready to erupt volcano in Iceland. The next volcano we could spot was infamous E15, do you remember how the ash flying from this volcano closed down so many airports in Europe and delayed so many flights world wide in 2010? This volcano's real name is Eyjafjallajökull but like all other Icelandic names it is so difficult for reporters to pronounce and remember so they made the name short E15. Icelandic people are still using viking's original language, but if you find the names very difficult you can always ask your tour guide his or her American name! Very funnily when E15's ash was creating chaos in Europe but Iceland's Reykjavik airport, which is just few hours from this volcano was open and fully functional, just because the wind was taking volcanic ash in opposite direction to the east! E15 is under the icecap of Eyjafjallajökull glacier and the black part on the glacier is layer of ash from eruption.

The Porvaldseyri farm situated at the foot of E15 is there since a century in the same family. Can you imagine how it must be living there with a huge volcano looming over their shoulders. In addition of being a traditional sheep and milk producers, the farm is working towards self-sufficiency, with their own hydro-electric generator, on-site hot and cold water sources and growing barley, wheat and rapeseed (canola). Interesting!

Icelandic Turf Houses

Icelandic Turf Houese
Immediately after E15 view point, you can take a look at old houses of Drangshlid, which are basically traditional Icelandic homes and no they are not igloos! These turf houses were built by using natural materials just near the base of mountains. The turf provides cozy warmness for cold winters, it's definitely one of those early green roofs and great example of sustainable building design! I think there is great potential for these kind of Icelandic turf house accommodation in Iceland which can be great addition to sustainable tourism here! While seeing these houses I remembered our stay in Turkey's Cappadocia cave house! I would love to stay in such turf house in Iceland! And if you find it a bit spooky then you are not completely wrong, there are many stories of Elves living in this area of Drangshlid. And don't be surprised to know that Icelanders believe in elves and trolls even in present day society.


With lot of interesting stories our guide took us to Skogafoss, that famous fall in Iceland with two rainbows! It was a great sunny day and not just sun but even luck was shinning at us, the moment we reached we saw those double rainbows, it felt like I am looking at heaven! This fall is on Skoga river and the cliffs are ancient coastal cliffs, which were formed by marine erosion at the end of the last ice age when the sea level was much higher than it is now.
A full rainbow of 180 degree at Skogafoss

As there are many glaciers around Iceland, you get to see many waterfalls but I think this is one of the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland. Iceland water is so pure, straight from glaciers and thanks to lesser pollution and less population of course the water remains clean.

Heart of Volcano on the Black Beach

Basalt Rock Formation
While planning the trip, I was fascinated by black beach! So when our guide parked the vehicle, I started walking straight to the beach. It's first black beach I have ever seen in my life. Our tour guide told us there is heart of an ancient volcano on the beach. Because of continuous erosion for many many years one of the ancient volcanic crater is now exposed. So I decided to believe in our guide's story and explore the igneous rock formation.

Black Sand Beach

Cave or possibly ancient magma chamber on the beach
The Reynisfjara beach is actually a volcanic basalt sand and pebble beach and is one the most beautiful beaches in the world. There are basalt coastal cliffs battered by sea makes the views of the beach even more beautiful. The arch formation on other side of the beach is spectacular! From May to August these coastal cliffs are inhabited by puffin colonies. Puffins are one of the few birds who can fly and even swim under the water. There is folklore that these two cliffs are trolls who caught rising sun light and transformed into light. The sea current here is usually rough, but as there is no landmass between Iceland and Antarctica, Atlantic rollers can attack here with full force. It was very windy and cold here so it was very comforting to have Icelandic soup in the only restaurant near beach.

Magma Intrusions on the beach

Glacier Walk

Walk on Solheimajokull Glacier

Our next stop was Solheimajokull Glacier which is part of the Myrdalsjokull Ice-cap and home to Katla volcano, which is overdue and ready to erupt and situated under this icecap!

Tongue of Solheimajokull Glacier
But first thing you notice when you reach the glacier is, impact of climate change! When we reached tongue of glacier, we could see a large glacier lake, which is basically the water accumulated after melting of ice in glacier. Our guide showed us how much the glacier has retreated in just last 30 years. Of course there is volcano under this glacier so it has impact on it, but you can't deny the effect of climate change, when you see it first hand!

Ice formation in Glacier
The thick black layers you can see on ice is accumulated ash from Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, which is on the west of Solheimajokull Glacier! Here we took a short walk on glacier. It is always very slippery on the edge of the glacier, where ice is melting but it was one of a kind experience. We got to see some glacier terrain features like dirt cones, ice ridge, crevasses. Our tour guide told us, when the crevasses are formed and ice fall open the colour of ice surface appears blue. The reason behind it, when ice is formed in glacier the air bubbles squeeze out because of the pressure of ice and as a result ice in glacier reflects blue colour. While seeing that fresh blue color of the ice you can't think of volcano and hot lava with fire at the same moment. But Nature is so amazing, under the same icecap there is active volcano, Katla!

Around the glacier we could spot many igneous rock formation. I am sure Katla geo-park must be heaven for geologist around the world.
Igneous Rocks


A walk behind Seljalandfoss

This water fall is on Seljalands river which originates in Eyjafjallajökull glacier. It is one of the very popular spot among tourists but I would say it's worth visiting. How many times you get to walk behind a tall natural waterfall and marvel it's beauty from all possible angles? You need to make sure you are wearing a raincoat if you don't want to get drenched feel even colder. Don't forget to look at the different plant and moss species when you are behind the falls. It's really very beautiful there!

This tour to south coast in Katla Gor park with Iceland Horizon was very memorable for me. Golden circle route is very popular, but I would say if you want to have glimpse of Fire (actually volcano) and Ice, you need to go on South shore trip! Don't forget to take your water bottle and coffee mug with you to reduce waste. You can refill your water bottle on any tap, as tap water is drinkable in Iceland. I even carried my snacks and nuts in my cloth snack bag to keep my tour waste free!

Be curious in Nature but don't harm it!