Iceland's Latest Renewable Energy Project Is So Badass

Icelandic companies are now hoping to exploit the nation’s shallow magma resources more directly. Image: Peter Hartree/Flickr
Icelandic companies are now hoping to exploit the nation’s shallow magma resources more directly. Image: Peter Hartree/Flickr

Iceland, land of elves and shark meat delicacies, is proving to be far more inventive than the rest of us when it comes to new energy technologies. Having already tamed its shallow geothermal resources, the chilly island nation is now trying to tap into the power of magma.


New Scientist reports on a fascinating new effort underway in Iceland to turn our planet’s gooey innards into a cheap and abundant source of power. Since early August, the Icelandic Deep Drilling Project has been boring down into ancient volcanic lava flows located in Reykjanes, Iceland. These flows overly the mid-Atlantic Ridge, the tectonic boundary separating the North American and Eurasian plates where magma bubbles close to the surface. Conveniently, this oceanic plate boundary takes a land-based detour through Iceland’s southwest.

If the drill can penetrate to a depth of 3 miles (5 kilometers), it’ll reach “supercritical steam,” water that has been heated by magma to temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius at pressures of 200 atmospheres.

The energy potential in this lava-heated steam is enormous. A geothermal company involved with the project estimates that a single one of these deep, hot wells could have a capacity of 50 megawatts (MW), ten times higher than your typical shallow geothermal well, and enough to power 50,000 homes. In 2009, a pilot project reached a depth of 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) and was able to pull 30 MW of power, although that energy was never used.

Iceland has already eliminated fossil fuels from its grid, which runs entirely off hydropower and geothermal energy. It’s great to see that a nation so far ahead of the rest of us in this respect isn’t just resting on its laurels, but finding bigger and badder sources of clean energy. I personally can’t wait to visit in ten years and see “powered by the mid-Atlantic ridge” inscribed on the outside of a building.

[New Scientist]

Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.



Iceland has the enviable position of having utterly abundant easily accessible and usable geothermal energy. Not only does it make sense for them to do it environmentally and strategically, it’s the cheapest option for them.

The rest of us have to make do with a slight premium if we want sustainable power. Very few places have the necessary conditions for such geothermal, most of Europe to get even what would be considered low level geothermal in Iceland need deep and expensive well like this.

It’s a good achievement though, and there is still talk of getting Iceland properly hooked into the European energy grid. Even with the losses because the power is so clean it wouldn’t matter, although the cost of an export cable that distance is frightening in it’s own right.