Geothermal causes ‘quakes’ in Hveragerði

Hellisheiði Power Station is experimenting with methods to inject by-product fluids from the geothermal process, cool water and CO2 (separator water), back into the ground by means of boreholes. This closed loop system would ensure that contaminants do not escape into the atmosphere and habitable landscape. This idea sounds incredible; ZERO carbon emissions in the harnessing of geothermal energy!

(Source for flow diagram: Geothermal Utilisation in Iceland, Orkuveita Reyjavikur)

At the Hellisheiði Power Station all of the quirks have yet to be worked out in this ideal cyclical process. Initially, the plan put forth by the power station was to drain the by-product water ¼ of a mile underground into the water table and let “the powerful ground water current” carry it out to sea. The municipality was not keen on this idea as “the people consider the groundwater a natural resource for future use”. The decision was then made to inject the by-product water back down into the geothermal boreholes.

As the book, Geothermal Utilisation in Iceland, published by the Reykjavík Energy Authority states, “Draining geothermal water is quite complicated. The largest problem is the risk of silica deposits clogging both pipes and boreholes.” It was also explained to me that once boreholes have been dug, fissures and cracks emanate from the hole. The pressure of water being inserted back into this hole can exacerbate these cracks and fissures and potentially cause earthquakes. Experimentation with reinserting the geothermal by-product into the depths of the earth, where it initially came from, is still underway. Unfortunately, this experimentation has resulted in EARTHQUAKES in the neighboring town of Hveragerði.

A major problem with not speaking or reading Icelandic is the difficultly in staying up to date on current issues. This is a current issue! While I am unable to read the newspaper articles, I heard from two sources (one academic, one in the field of landscape architecture) that Hveragerði has recently endured earthquakes as a result of experimentation at the Hellisheiði Power Station, and community members are upset and beginning to lose patience.

To cause earthquakes that affect a town of 2,300 people is no small matter.


Ground language

Attention paid to ground (paving) in Iceland, and Reykjavík in particular, is incredible. These pictures are a sampling of the rich, exterior ground language found throughout the city. The detail and care put into these surfaces emphasize a ground-ed priority.

Oddur Hermannsson from Landform

Hveragerði comparison of town structure diagram || aerial photos courtesy of Landform

While the Varma River (Thermal River) has shifted over time, as all rivers do, it was this winding vein of water that provided the baseline for this comparison. In just over 50 years, the geothermal infrastructure, size of the community and town form have changed dramatically. The 1974 aerial shows a system dominated by above ground pipes. The 1998 photograph demonstrates a much larger and technologically advanced system, mostly subterranean. Today, “Hot areas” and pipelines are thoughtfully considered in the larger context of the town and its future growth. Each organizing method paints an entirely different bird’s eye view.

The town building and planning officer in Hveragerði put me in contact with Oddur Hermannsoson, whose team prepared the 2006 master plan for the town. Oddur turned out to be an incredibly generous and knowledgeable resource. He is the owner of Landform, a consulting firm in landscape architecture and planning based in Selfoss, Iceland. Today, October 12th, I had the opportunity to meet him and his colleagues.

Oddur shared with me a wealth of knowledge about Hveragerði. He touched on issues from historic conditions, to geologic considerations, to political implications, to the current master plan (which is on the internet, but in Icelandic). He took the time to explain the electrical circuit of the entire country (providing me with a awesome, quick and simple diagram) and then also explained how the ground temperature readings and mappings of a particular community are carried out.National electricity distribution diagram || simplified

This diagram reveals the main idea behind the electricity distribution in Iceland. Most power stations in Iceland that provide electricity are tied into one main national circuit. This distribution network is operated by the energy company, Landsvirkjun, which is owned by the Icelandic State. In this system the circuit is always primed and pumping with electricity. Power stations continually supply the circuit with energy and consumers tap into this larger collective.This means that when I turn a light on in Reykjavík, the electricity used to illuminate the light could be from any one of the power stations tied into this larger network. I could be harnessing energy from a hydro-power plant in northwest Iceland or I could be channeling electricity from the geothermal plant in Krafla.ground temperature diagram || geological heat reading

This diagram shows how ground temperature readings are taken on a matrix at a consistent depth, (in this case 60 cm/aprox. 2 feet). This consistent temperature reading provides scientists with data from which they may deduce what is happening at greater depths. These heat readings are entered into computer systems with gps coordinates that derive a heat distribution map. In the case of Hveragerði the National Energy Authority carried out this study for Landform. This data was critical in determining safe building guidelines and zoning ideology.

Oddur covered many scales, and many topics, with enthusiasm and colorful stories. When speaking about the ground condition in Hveragerði, Oddur eloquently explained,

“The entire area is living, and moving, it’s like the ground is resting upon someone’s shoulders.”

While this community originated around and because of its heitur vatn (hot water) the city is known throughout the country as “The City of Health”. Since its founding in 1955, the NLFÍ Health and Rehabilitation Clinic has played a critical role in the town. As they describe themselves on their internet page, “The clinic combines the benefits of modern medical science with health care traditions of the Nature Health Association of Iceland.” Less than 30 miles from Reykjavík, Hveragerði provides a convenient and peaceful setting for recovery and rehabilitation.

Oddur also emphasized that, “Hveragerði is a special community with the visual elements of agriculture and glass houses.” Traveling back to Reykjavík on bus, the day outside turned dark and stormy. The glowing glass houses, located directly adjacent to the main road,were a gorgeous illuminated showcase of this community.

My favorite quote of the day: “Everything is connected.”

Thank you Oddur Hermannsson and Landform for a wonderfully productive and informative day!

Daily reminders of geothermal energy

Before coming to Iceland, I had not used geothermal energy. How different could it be? It illuminates lights, heats up stoves, provides hot water to wash dishes…it’s energy, right?

After two months in this country, I find myself being reminded daily of where the energy I use comes from. I have not experience this at home.

Daily reminders (before leaving my apartment):

 Stepping into the steaming hot shower, my olfactory sense is quickly awakened. The sulfurous smell, emitted during the use of hot water, is poignant. Recollections of this smell are stimulated in my mind: suddenly I am exploring dynamic geothermal fields with spouting geysers, boiling mudpots, and venting fumaroles; OR I am relaxing in a “hot pot”/geothermal pool, my body completely at ease, soaking up minerals and heat in an other-worldly environment; OR… the distinct memories of places connected with this smell go on and on. This “rotten egg” smell has become utterly delightful (I’m serious). Each time I indulge in geothermally heated water, I am momentarily brought back to the powerful and dynamic ground that creates this possibility. Instead of stepping into my black tile shower, I am transported to fascinating places. Sometimes I am left wondering about the root source of this energy; and sometimes I am musing over the current political “green energy” debate.  Is it the uniqueness of geothermal environments that make such a strong impact? Is it the potency of this particular smell? Is the connection between smell and memory stronger than other senses? Does all energy have a smell? Does this connectivity between memory of a place and geothermal energy fade with time? If this was the only energy that you had ever used, would there still be a connection between geothermal environments and daily use?

WASHING THE DISHES: The first warning that I was given upon arrival to my apartment, “Be careful, the water gets really hot!” Even with this advice, I have burnt my hands on numerous occasions. Hot water has infused the tops of my hands and evokes a constant sensitivity. Water heats up fast and gets extremely HOT. I used an infrared thermometer to do a few quick tests on the water temperature at my apartment sink. How hot was this water? Despite the steam and strong sulfur smell, the water temperature can jolt you back into reality quickly if you aren’t careful. After 90 seconds of running the faucet on high, 172 0F water erupted from the tap!

TRACES FROM THE SHOWER + SINK: I used to take fast showers. Here, I find myself relishing in the extreme hot water. I become entrapped in the warm world of steam and thought. After enveloping me, the steam is drawn to my windows, making them watery and opaque. Even with the windows open, the steamy traces of my shower will linger for the next hour.

Another trace I constantly find is a white residue on the counters. No matter how hard I work to keep the sink and counters clean, it is impossible. After I wipe down the counter, or the sink, or the shower and the water has dried, white traces (minerals) cloud whatever surface I have scrubbed.

FIDGETING WITH MY RING: I am constantly spinning, moving, and playing with the ring on my finger. The sensation of this act has not changed, but when I look down at my silver, seaglass ring, I pause. Is that my ring? What happened? A black patina has transformed my ring. Iceland’s geothermal waters have left a dark trace.

I was told at thermal baths to take off my jewlrey as the water would tarnish it. After almost losing my ring, I decided to keep to my normal routine and never take it off. I shower, wash dishes, go swimming, all with my ring on. For now, this dark patina serves as a reminder (similar to the sting I sometimes get in my eyes after showering), of this geothermal water. When I get home, I’ll get out the polish.

NIGHT SOUNDS: I woke up in the night to the sound of water percolating. Was my neighbor making coffee at 2 a.m.? Then again at 4 a.m.? It wasn’t as though this hot water initially woke me up, but I found the sound intriguing. Now when I wake up in the night, I listen for it. At times the stillness of the night allows me to hear this hot rumble. The apartment is being heated by hot water. My neighbors can’t drink that much coffee!

I am going to try to capture this sound on video.

Solar representations

After a week of grey, wet skies and a conversation with a local student about the drastic reduction in daylight hours over the past month, I decided to graphically investigate Iceland’s unique solar condition.

At this point my representations only investigate the length of time the sun is in the Reykjavík sky over a year-long period (2011). The atmosphere, moods, and excitation that light/darkness create in this country is definitely a part of the Nordic light phenomena. I hope to get further into this qualitative aspect of Icelandic light in future representations.

But for now, I’ve made a few different representations and would like YOUR opinion! Which graphic makes the most/least  sense to you? Which graphic do you visually like the most/least? Why? Please participate and make a comment. 

I am intentionally not describing these graphs…more on them latter.

In order of construction:









I had to include a few pictures that start to describe the qualitative aspect of light. Light here has an extraordinary character, and, at times, is an event unto itself (more later).