At Kerið, a popular stop on Iceland’s Golden Circle – the 300-km loop into the interior from the capital Reykjavík that also takes in the national park of Thingvellir and Gullfoss Waterfall – I stare into a perfect volcanic crater lake, the water a striking blue in color.
You are never far from a volcano in Iceland, active or not, and geothermal power plants provide a quarter of its energy, with hydro power accounting for most of the rest. “We want to turn Iceland into a 100 per cent fossil-free nation in the near future,” says my local friend Jens. Iceland has enough natural energy to power all of Europe without the use of fossil fuels but getting it out is the problem. Bauxite, shipped to Iceland to be smelted into aluminium with the plentiful cheap electricity, is now a major factor in the economy.
Nesjavellir Geothermal Plant, just outside Reykjavík produces electricity for the city as well as hot water for heating, pumped 23km to the centre in well-insulated pipes. Steam clouds vent from the landscape around and, while it seems a simple idea to harness the power of nature, the dangers involved are also obvious. A plant tour explains some of the forces at work under the rather dull exterior.
Geothermal energy works by injecting cold water into bore holes reaching the earth’s magma, which is only 2km below the surface in Iceland. Heated to around 240C, recovery wells extract it, often in the form of steam, which is then used in turbines to generate electricity. Some is also used to heat cold water stored in separate tanks. The water heated in this way warms most Icelandic homes.
Why not use the geothermal brine from the earth’s interior directly? Because it is rich in minerals that will clog the pipes. To understand just how many minerals are in the water, I visit the Blue Lagoon near Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport. The water is a vivid blue like some tropical paradise and makes a sharp contrast to the black lava rocks around. It is actually the silica-rich run-off from Svartsengi geothermal power plant and, with a temperature of about 35-40C all year, has a reputation for its therapeutic qualities of various kinds – the lagoon also serves as the decor for the Blue Lagoon Chill, a unique party at the Iceland Airwaves festival, drawing hoards of music lovers from all over the world every November (pictured above).
“The water is very good for psoriasis and eczema: some people have been totally cured,” Jens assures me. The lagoon is also incredibly lovely, at its best in winter when thick clouds of steam rise from the water’s surface and falling snow adds to the magic. No wonder it is Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction.
Take me to the Blue Lagoon!