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.


“Water is everything”

Water. In Iceland, there is no shortage of water. The effects of this powerful element are highly visible, known and respected. When the words, “Water is everything in Iceland”, parted the lips of a professor from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, the larger context for this project began to fall into place. WATER. Water makes energy, be it geothermal or hydroelectric, and provides the mainstay for the community. Since the beginning of settlement, communities have formed along the coastline for fishing or adjacent to hot water sources for energy. Water is the critical element in powering the nation, forming its dramatic landscape, initiating communities, and providing a source from which to harvest fish, the nations leading export. (This beautiful graphic is just the tip of the iceberg for the inspiring group Vatnavinir, Friends of Water)(source: Vatnavinir, Friends of Water)

Solid water. Glaciers are prevalent and pronounced in Iceland. Statistics Iceland provides a wealth of data on the country that is used in the following calculations: glaciers occupy 11.57% of the country’s surface area and lakes cover 2.67%. This water coverage (excluding rivers) accounts for 14.24% of Iceland’s surface area. Not only do glaciers cover 11,922 km², but the visual impact of this iced area is stunningly impressive and awe-inspiring. Vatnajökull, an enormous iced landscape, is the largest glacier in Europe. It is 8,100 km². This single ice cap is responsible for almost 70% of the entire glacial coverage in Iceland. Glaciers have also provided inspiration and topics for Icelandic literature. In World Light by Nobel Prize winner, Halldór Laxness, the main character, poet Olafur Karason, finds peace and beauty in the glacier. At the end of the book Olfaur replaces a broken mirror for an invalid child so that she may, once again, see the glacier. He does this act and states, “In this mirror dwells One and All,” before walking to his death on the glacier. Standing near a glacier, it is impossible not to observe the power, process, and beauty of water.

Water makes a splash! The waterfall below, Seljalandsfoss, cascades 200 feet over the cliffs of the former coastline. Walking behind this torrent of water, in the space carved out by the ceaseless backsplash, the auditory turbulence sounded like a jet plane ascending within my brain. The force of water falling excited my body, attuned my senses, and left my mind in whirling wonder…water? On our trip around the country we saw more waterfalls (each uniquely inspiring) than I managed to keep track of. Waterfalls across the country exhibit an enormous amount of power. The political debate concerning hydroelectricity is currently a major issue in Iceland. Andri Snaer Magnason’s book, Dreamland: A Manual for a Frightened Nation is an imaginative and revealing novel on this confrontational issue.

Rivers, streams, rivulets. Even when water isn’t flamboyantly “falling” over the landscape, its visual tracks are left upon the earth. The flow of water is especially detectable on the steep mountainsides. These traces are a constant visual reminder of this dynamic force.

Seeping down to one of Iceland’s many rivers, these veins of water convey both ground and water, as they eroding and water the landscape in one swift motion. The river Thjorsalt is 139 miles long, the longest in Iceland. It is estimated that in one year this single river transports 4.5 million tons of gravel and silt from the central highlands (where it commences). Thjorsa has also been harnessed by power companies for it’s energy. This river and its tributaries alone represent 27% of the hydropower of the country. These flowing veins of water, small and large, are transforming the nation.

I’m not going to make you scroll through all of the drump truck pages…but to give you an idea this next page is 10,000 truckloads (so imagine 16 pages of this being carried from the highlands in one year, from the river Thjorsa).

Water’s eternal cycle:

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.

Hveragerði to Keflavík_travel notes 10

August 19th

Total distance covered:470 km  | 292 miles


We drove the southeast coast of Iceland faster than expected and decided to stay in Hveragerði. It was exciting to be in this town, as it is one of the communities I will investigate in further detail. The town is full of vegetation and steaming hot areas, so I was thrilled with the surroundings. As we were now only 28 miles east of Reykjavik we were closing in on our circumnavigation of the island. While we could easily have spent the entire day in Hveragerði, we only visited the central geothermal park (I couldn’t pass that up). We decided to take advantage of the rental car and continue to explore more peripheral sites.

The large geothermal park is centrally located within the town. The town itself is built above a hot-spring field. The entrance to the park is a geothermally heated greenhouse. This is a fitting opening as horticulture is a flourishing and important business in the town. There were more fences and railings in this park than we had previously encountered at other geothermal areas. However, this was the first time the geothermal area we explored was located in the center of a community. Here, houses abutted the fenced park. Previously the geothermal areas we experienced were situated in vast lava fields without human occupation. From remnants of old pipes to new pipes and holes spewing steam, this area offered a wealth of community and geothermal history.


Gullfoss (“gold falls”) is a waterfall that descends the Hvítá River in staircase-like cascades. At the final stage, the roaring water plunges at a right angle into a 105-foot deep crevasse. This spectacular sight draws flocks of tourists the average summertime flow 140 m³/s. There have been questions controversies as to whether this waterfall’s tremendous power should be used to generate electricity. This issue has sparked tremendous controversy throughout Iceland. Currently, however, the waterfall is owned by the State of Iceland and is protected.

On our trip from Hveragerði to Gullfoss, we were fortune in meeting Avi. He was traveling around the country by himself (well, he and his large backpack, which he lovingly referred to as his companion). Avi had been sidetracked in his travels due to his search for a “hot pot” the night before. He was trying to get back to a more populated area to catch a ride. Yes, there was a culture of finding the good “hot pots”! He told us that his favorite (other than the hot pots in the Mývatn area) was located where hot and cold rivers meet near a hiking trail outside of Hveragerði. This friendly hitchhiker had shared with us a “hot” gem, and I couldn’t wait to check it out!


Geysir was not gushing when we arrived. It had stopped spouting its 200 foot eruptions in the early 20th century. Some believe that Geysir stopped spouting due to the accumulation of rocks clogging up its opening. These rocks had been thrown into it by tourists who were attempting to set the geyser off. Others believe that these rocks, while damaging, were not the only reason for Geysir’s dormancy.The English word “geyser” actually takes its name from this place. The Merriam Webster dictionary tells us that “geyser” is, “a spring that throws forth intermittent jets of heated water and steam,” and it originates from, “‘Geysir’, hot spring in Iceland, from geysa to rush forth”. The geyser at Geysir is believed to have come into existence around the end of the 13th century when a series of strong earthquakes and eruptions occurred in the area. Today, while Geysir was dormant, Strokkur (another geyser in close proximity) shoot off smaller bouts of water and steam. Mudpots, steam vents, and hot streams all populate the Geysir Park.


Hellisheiði Power Station is the newest of the five geothermal power stations in Iceland. Located in the Hengill region (very close to Hveragerði), this power station is a combined heat and power plant (CHP). The newness and expense of the plant was evident in the intricately designed and modern visitor center. We had to paid to visit the Geothermal Energy Exhibition show in the power station, but it was definitely worth the money! We were introduced to the building (descriptions of design intent included) and geothermal processes by a personal tour guide. Video, as well as multimedia touch screens, were loaded with information on geothermal energy, its historical uses and the current ecological factors in geothermal processing. While I thoroughly enjoyed the educational aspects of this exhibit, the undercurrent on the company’s (Mannvit) ideas on sustainable green energy was less appealing. The energy production capacity for the plant in December 2010 was 213 MWe. My goal is to be able to explain to all of you what this figure actually means.


The Blue LagoonBláa Lónið) is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland, statistics indicate that more people visit the spa in one year than occupy the country. The lagoon is a geothermal spa located in a lava field in Grindavík. The steam from both the Svartsengi power plant and lagoon is visible from the Keflavik International Airport. Only 8 miles separate International arrival and this “hot” destination. Re-use of hot water resources and the geothermal aspect of the Reykjanes peninsula are key ingredients in the spa’s functionality. Super-heated water from the Svartsengi power station is used to produce electricity as well as to provide heat for the municipal hot water heating system. After the water has gone though this system then enters the lagoon. In other Geothermal plants I have encountered on this trip, the cooler by-product water is either injected back into the bore hole or left above ground in the landscape. This inventive re-use system provides recreational, social, and medicinal benefits for its users. The blue waters and black, silica-edged lava rock (along with an incredibly designed site and structure) create an incredible atmosphere that is other-worldly.

Mývatn to Stöðvarfjorður_travel notes 8

August 17th

Total distance covered: 322 km  | 200 miles 


Lake Mývatn (“Midge Lake”) derives its name from the huge number of midges (flies) that surround this body of water. The flies didn’t bother us. This area had so much to see and do that we found it difficult to leave. Numerous hiking trails of varying length and difficulty allowed visitors the chance to explore this unique geothermal terrain. We decided to spend the morning here and continue our investigation of the area. Our first hike explored around and through the pseudocraters on the southeast side of the lake. These landforms looked like craters, the bottom portion of a volcanic cone with it’s top blown off. The prefix ‘pseudo’ is added as these craters are not actually vents from which lava has erupted. They are not connected to a magma conduit. Instead, these landforms were created by steam explosions when hot, flowing lava came into contact with lake water. The porous lava rock absorbs the nutrient-rich lake waters creating the conditions for a dense carpet of vegetation. Directly surrounding the lake, green life flourished. Close by however (in areas like Hverir where we hiked yesterday), vegetation is extremely sparse. This juxtaposition makes the lakeside flora extremely attractive to humans and birds alike. I was especially intrigued as to what lay just beyond the crest of these pseudocraters. I rushed off to peer inside. I gazed down at the interior concave bowl where it’s center had begun to rise and form another, much smaller, pseudocrater.  It was as if the smaller landform had reverberated off its limiting walls and started the process of crater formation all over again. The form and its echo brought to mind the impact of a single drop of water on a still lake. What an incredible landform to play in, hide amidst, and be enveloped by. I imagined the joy this earthwork could bring to families and children alike.


Hverfjall Crater loomed in the distance. This enormous, grey-black landform, similar to the pseudocraters, was the result of molten lava meeting the lake waters. Around 2,800 years ago, an explosion resulted in magma meeting water and Hverfjall crater was created. This large, wide landform of ash and pumice rises 656 feet and stretches 3,280 feet in diameter. After climbing the steep slope of small, coarse lava rock, I stood on the rim and peered down at the 460-foot drop to the concave center. This hiking ground proved to be completely different from yesterday. The ground in this area was completely different from yesterday. Today, the ground provided grip for our hike rather then sticking to our boots as it did yesterday. There were no plants on the steep slopes of this crater.  Black and shades of grey comprised this MASSIVE scene.


Along the roadside we spotted a steaming earthen hut. Our guidebook informed us that we could find Hverabrauð (“hot spring bread”) baked in underground ovens in this area. However, to our great disappointment, we were informed at the Visitor’s Center that the ovens were no longer open to the public. Had we discovered someone else’s subterranean oven used to bake bread or cure fish?


A horse coral made from lava rock also attracted our attention as we drove the eastern side of Lake Mývatn. The eclectic combination of wooden gates set off against the lava rock was magnificent. 


Storagja + Grjoagja are old, hot springs that were popular bathing holes until their heat dissipated in the ’90s. While the baiting culture has obviously gone elsewhere, these caves are evidence of one that existed in the past. People often socialized, in the warm waters of the area. While we had enjoyed the Nature Baths last night, I was curious as to what other kinds of hot pools might exist. Where were the “hot springs” in use now? How could I find out where they were? Who frequented these places?


On the road to the Krafla Power Station, both a shower and toilet stood out in the open. The darker soil surrounding this installation emphasized the stark white of the porcelain bowl. What was this? Laughing, Mom and I reminisced about the exposed outhouse we had seen in the Westfjords. Was this a comment on privacy?


We decided to revisit the Krafla Power Station in hopes of finding the Visitor Center. In front of the larger buildings, one drive had potential. With no, “employees only” signs, we continued on to discover a small parking area abutting a gated mass of powerlines. A tiny sign introduced us to the Visitor Center. Our car was the only car in the small parking area, so I was a bit unsure if we had found the right place. During our time driving around the Lake Mývatn area, the parking lots have been full. Here, we were alone. Once we stepped inside, we were greeted kindly by a young Icelandic woman. She asked if we would like to view a short film on geothermal energy. While the video was helpful in describing the buildings onsite and their functions, it offered only an extremely simplified version of harvesting geothermal energy. I was most impressed with the drill heads on display in the lobby. As we were still the only visitors, the lady spent some time discussing these large drill heads. She informed us they were made of industrial diamonds. She also invited us to go up to the top floor and look out at the generator. We were excited to see the inner workings of the plant. As we climbed, floor after floor, doorways leading off the stairwell had signs asking us to keep out. At the top flight we emerged onto a large platform overlooking the floor below. There sitting alone was a sole generator. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, but this one, quiet machine was definitely not it. Again, where were the people? Slightly disappointed, we headed back down the stairs. At the bottom, beside the doorway, we saw a plethora of hardhats. I wondered when those had stopped being part of the tour? By this time, two more visitors had arrived and were watching the video. We thanked this friendly lady and left the Visitor Center. Outside, the massive buildings, power lines and the complex network of pipes seemed like a completely different world.


We headed for the East Fjords, winding our way through large mountain passes. The mountains in this area are the largest in Iceland, although I must admit, I didn’t feel as dwarfed as I had in the Westfjords. We were headed to Stöðvarfjorður, a small fishing village. While we didn’t have time to visit all of the fjords, I was still particularly interested in Reyðarfjörður. This small town had recently acquired the country’s largest aluminum smelting plant. After taking Julie Bargmann’s Regenerative Technologies course, I can’t help my fascination of industrial landscapes. What impacts might this plant have on its surroundings? Was this plant contaminating the ground? What effects do such a huge operation have on the surrounding community? What do aluminum smelting plants even look like? How is our consumption-crazed society impacting this small town? The building was ENORMOUS, almost a mile long. It felt very separated from the surrounding community, around the bend and out of “sight” sat the enormous factory. We only had a quick glace at this humongous building sitting on the water´s edge. All access was limited. I need to learn more about aluminum smelting if this site is going to have a greater import. What was this industry doing? Where was the power for this immense plant coming from? Why here? Where was the aluminum going? Now that I am in Reykjavík doing research, I am especially happy that we made it to this aluminum smelting plant. I will come back to this topic later, but ALCOA is intrinsically linked to the issues of politics and power in Iceland. The book, Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation by author Andri Snær Magnason describes with wit and imagination political implications surrounding major energy (in particular hydroelectricity) issues and environmentalism in Iceland. 

The Drive from Reyðarfjörður to Stöðvarfjorður was considerably shorted by a 3.5 mile tunnel through the mountains. At first appearance, this tunnel was extremely daunting, a big pipe driven though the mountains? After driving through the tunnel, however, I was impressed with the amount of safety pull-offs and its roomy interior.  It turns out the company, Mannvit, built this tunnel and other similar to it in Iceland. Mannvit is also involved in geothermal works and “green energy”, perhaps this information will prove to be valuable later?