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Iceland: Foreign Engineers Become Geothermal Energy Experts

Jun 20, 2007 - IPS/GIN

REYKJAVIK, Iceland, Icelandic leaders say they are eager to teach the rest of the world a trick they discovered years ago: a strategy for harvesting geothermal energy from hot rocks beneath the earth's surface.

Icelanders have become skilled at using a geothermal energy, a form of renewable energy that uses the earth's heat to warm up bathwater and generate electricity.

Iceland already meets 72 percent of its needs through renewable energy sources, relying most on geothermal and hydroelectric power. That compares to 13 percent worldwide and 7 percent in Europe.

Hot water for heating comes from drilling into hot rocks just below the earth's surface. It is then collected in a pumping station and transported by pipes to central tanks, from which it is distributed to individual houses. Roughly 85 percent of houses in Iceland are heated by geothermal energy.

Such heat can be converted into electricity as well, using a complex system of boreholes, energy exchangers and turbines.

Since 1979, the National Energy Authority, the Orkustofnun, has run a United Nations University Geothermal Training Program jointly sponsored by the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which covers 80 percent of its costs, and the U.N., which covers the remaining 20 percent. The course lasts six months and includes considerable field work. Twenty-one students from 12 countries graduated last October.

Of the 39 countries that have sent people on the course, China has provided 64 participants -- more than any other. So far 350 people have completed the course.

Proportionate to consumption, Iceland uses more geothermal energy than any other country, but overall China uses the most geothermal energy in the world. As of the end of 2006, 3,200 geothermal areas had been listed in China. About 255 of those sites are high-temperature areas suitable for generating electricity.

Icelandic companies, in conjunction with the Chinese company Shaanxi Green Energy, recently built a geothermal district heating system in Xian Yang in China that has the potential to become the largest such facility in the world.

The district utility Reykjavik Energy has also obtained a contract for geothermal research and utilization in Djibouti, a small country in eastern Africa.

Use of geothermal energy appears to be spreading. Kenya, the Philippines, Ethiopia and El Salvador have each sent more than 20 people to take Iceland's geothermal training course; in these countries, geothermal energy provides between 10 percent and 22 percent of energy needs.

Most participants come from developing countries that have significant geothermal potential. Some have come from Eastern Europe.

To be eligible, candidates must have a science or engineering degree, hold a permanent post in an energy authority, research institution or university, and have practical experience of at least a year in some form of geothermal work. An introductory course is followed by a choice of specialized courses.

The nine specialized courses are reservoir engineering, chemistry of thermal fluids, geothermal utilization, geological exploration, geophysical exploration, borehole geology, borehole geophysics, environmental studies and drilling technology. The first three are by far the most popular.

"Generally they do well when they get home and have contributed significantly to energy development in their parts of the world," course director Ingvar Fridleifsson said. "We only choose fellows who have secure jobs with institutions or companies dealing with geothermal projects, and we teach them the things that will be the most useful to them in their home country."

Some students have the option of taking a higher course in geothermal sciences or engineering in conjunction with the University of Iceland. This option has only been available since 1999, but it is becoming increasingly popular. Currently there are eight students from five countries taking the course. Two of them are women.

Saeid Nasrabadi is one of the students. "I was on the geothermal training program in Iceland in 2004, then returned to my work as a civil engineer at the Sabalan geothermal field in the northwest of Iran," he said. "Iran is similar to Iceland regarding geothermal science, except that in Iran the potential has not yet been exploited."

In addition to operating within Iceland, the program has also initiated short courses in Africa and Latin America, as a contribution to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight goals agreed by world leaders in 2000 to reduce poverty and promote health and education.

Next year, two international universities focusing on renewable energies will start operating in Iceland. One of them, in Akureyri in North Iceland, called the School for Renewable Energy Sciences, will be privately run and will offer 11-month courses at a university level.

Thorleifur Bjornsson is organizing the program. "The key target countries for students will be Eastern and Central Europe, including Poland and Hungary," he said. "When fully operational, we hope to [enroll] 50 to 80 students a year." Russia will be another target country.

The other new university, the Reykjavik Energy Graduate School of Sustainable Systems, is a cooperative project between Reykjavik Energy and two universities in Reykjavik. It will offer master's degrees and doctorates, as well as offering shorter courses regarding technology, the exploitation of renewable resources, and nature and the economic market.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by Inter Press Service and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)


Updated: 2016/06/30

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