Iceland’s President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson on his country’s relationship with geothermal energy

Iceland’s President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson on his country’s relationship with geothermal energy
Iceland’s first settlers were aware of the potential of geothermal energy, President Jóhannesson said

Iceland’s President, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, addressed the fourth Iceland Geothermal Conference, which SciTech Europa attended in Reykjavík, where he discussed his country’s relationship with geothermal energy.

Iceland’s geothermal sector has been developing since the 18th Century, at which time a hot spring area in Reykjavík was designated and constructed for open air laundering. It was also at this time that indirect utilisation took place by drilling in geothermal fields to mine sulphur. In 1900, experiments with drilling shallow geothermal wells and transferring hot water via pipelines for space heating began, and in 1908 a small-scale district heating system came on line.

Later, other more direct utilisation methods emerged and the first greenhouse in Iceland heated with geothermal heat commenced operation in 1924. The first steps towards eliminating Iceland’s dependence on coal and oil for space heating were taken in 1928, when the city of Reykjavik initiated its drilling programme with the aim of gaining access to hot water.

The fourth Iceland Geothermal Conference

In April, SciTech Europa travelled to Reykjavík as a media partner for the fourth Iceland Geothermal Conference. The event, which saw attendees from 40 countries gather in the Icelandic capital, offered an in-depth discussion of the barriers that hinder development of the geothermal sector, as well as some insight into how they can be overcome. The conference also focused on the business environment through three separate themes: vision, development, and operations.

IGC is known to offer quality lectures delivered by carefully selected speakers from around the world, and perhaps this year’s instalment’s most high profile speaker was the Icelandic president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, who delivered a humerous but nevertheless insightful presentation on the history of geothermal energy in Iceland, which, he said, has been of interest to Icelanders since the first settlers arrived over a thousand years ago.

He began his speech by explaining that these first settlers were similar in many ways to the delegates gathered in front of him – they thought about energy, and they thought about heating their homes. “They used peat and they chopped wood,” he explained. “And they chopped wood until there was very little left. And that is a very good illustration of the dangers of over-exploitation when it comes to natural resources.”

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, who referred to himself as a historian who “likes to look backwards,” but who, given his “relatively new position as head of state” also fully realises that he “also has to look forwards,” also explained that “these settlers also knew about hot water; they knew about geothermal energy.”

Christianity and hot water

He went on to say that around the year 999 – a figure typically rounded up to the year 1,000 – Icelanders decided to adopt Christianity. In Icelandic, this event is known as the ‘kristnitaka’ (or ‘the taking of Christianity’), and, he said, once the decision was made at the Icelandic Parliament, the Alþingi (anglicised as ‘Althingi’ or ‘Althing’), one of the oldest parliaments in the world, the people began to be baptised in the cold water of the lake. Except, that is, for several chiefs, who, while they agreed to baptism, preferred to enter the water in the nearby hot spring.

“Already, then, you can see the positive effects of hot water in Iceland,” Jóhannesson said, adding that, some time later, in the 13th century, Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic historian, poet, and politician, settled in Reykholt as manager of an estate there, making significant improvements to the estate, including a hot outdoor bath. This, the president said, is “a classic case of the fact that we Icelanders already knew by then the benefits of the hot water under the ground.”

It was in the 20th century that the decision was made to use hot water to heat the houses in Reykjavík, which Guðni Th. Jóhannesson held up as a “huge success story” as Iceland moved towards a 100% reliance on green energy for heating.”

How do you like Iceland?

According to President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, a few decades ago visitors to Iceland were likely to be asked by members of the local population ‘how do you like Iceland?’ “There was a sense of pride as well as an inferiority complex inherent in that question.” Please like Iceland, the Icelanders were saying, “we are a small, newly-independent nation, and you must like us; we have something to offer on the international stage,” Jóhannesson explained. However, he added: “We do not ask this anymore. To begin with, there is just too many of you; too many people are visit Iceland these days and we cannot stop every single person and ask them how they like Iceland and eagerly await the answer of ‘I love it, it is fantastic’. Further, we do not need to do this. We have developed here in Iceland a modern welfare state and we can always do much better, and that is our goal as we look ahead.

“We can be proud, and we don’t need to ask in eager anticipation how you like Iceland. And a part of this success story is the use of geothermal resources to benefit society, to heat our homes, and we want to export that success story. But we want to be humble as well. We are not only here to preach the wonders of Iceland and the wisdom of our scientists, but we are also here to engage in an exchange of ideas and knowledge. We Icelanders can learn so much from the foreign experts who have arrived here for this conference; it is all about exchange and the flow of ideas.”

“We are here in this joint effort to demonstrate to the outside world the clear, obvious benefits of green energy like geothermal resources,” the President concluded.

This article will appear in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 27, which will be published in June, 2018.

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