Geothermal: piped infrastructure in the town of Hveragerði

These images are solely from the geothermally active town of Hveragerði.

Pipes. Technology. Power. Metallic Infrastructure. Otherworldly. Iceland.

Community Forming. Place Making. Sensory Imbued. Evocatively. Iceland.

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.

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!