How Iceland’s geothermal champions are greening the Azores.

There are riches in Iceland’s soil! No, the country is not seeing a gold rush and there’s no point in starting to dig. Instead, Iceland’s underground water is truly priceless. Here’s why.

Green Power Down Below

Imagine digging a deep hole, straight down to the earth’s core. The deeper you go, the hotter it would get. This heat can be turned into so-called geothermal energy, which can be used to heat buildings and generate electricity.

Geothermal energy is a powerful source of green energy. Geothermal energy can be extracted without burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas or oil. And when exploited sustainably, geothermal energy is entirely renewable.

There are two ways to use geothermal energy. Geothermal heat pumps use heat close to the earth’s surface to heat or cool homes and businesses. They either create a circuit of underground pipes that circulate liquid or take water directly from a source. Temperatures above ground change with the seasons but the temperature below the surface remains the same. In winter, temperatures underground are warmer than the air, so the fluid pumped into the system is warmer and can be used to warm buildings. In summer, temperatures underground are cooler, so the pumps bring in cold water to cool down buildings.

Geothermal power plants tap into heat deep inside the earth to generate steam to make electricity. Wells of more than 100 metres deep are used to pump up water under high pressure. As the water reaches the surface, the pressure is dropped, turning the water into steam. This steam is used to make a turbine spin. This turbine is connected to a generator, which creates electricity. The steam is cooled off in a cooling tower, turning it back into water. This water is pumped back into the earth so the process can start again.

Icelandic Geothermal Champions

Iceland is the perfect place to generate geothermal energy. It lies astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. These two plates are slowly moving apart, creating an extraordinarily large number of volcanoes and geysers.

Iceland has been a pioneer in geothermal energy, especially geothermal power plants. The country built its first geothermal power plant in 1969; today there are seven. Geothermal sources cover 66% of the island’s primary energy use. About 9 out of 10 households are heated with geothermal energy and geothermal facilities generate 25% of the country’s electricity.

Through the EEA Grants, Iceland’s National Energy Authority is sharing its unique know-how with other European countries, to help them develop their own geothermal potential. “Considering global warming, all countries need to increase their use of renewable energy sources. In Iceland, we have a unique knowledge of the use of geothermal energy. If we can help to make other countries see this potential, it will be an achievement for us,” said Jonas Ketilsson, Deputy Director General in the National Energy Authority of Iceland.

An explosive collaboration

Like Iceland, the Azores are right on top of a so-called fault line, where different tectonic plates meet. At the Azores Triple Junction, the North American, African and Eurasian plates collide. This results in potentially dangerous earthquakes, but it also produces volcanic activity and heat that is perfect for creating geothermal energy.

Unlike Iceland, the Azores do not have a long tradition of producing green energy. In the early 90s more than 90% of their electricity supply relied on fossil fuels. This was not just bad for the environment, but also expensive, as all energy had to be bought and imported from abroad. So, since then, the archipelago has been investing heavily in renewable energy. Iceland and the EEA Grants played a role in that, by working with Portuguese officials to increase the knowledge of geothermal energy and geothermal power plants.

In 2016, the EEA Grants supported EDA RENOVÁVEIS to establish a pilot geothermal power plant in the Pico Alto Geothermal Field on Terceira Island. The plant now provides more than 10% in the island’s total energy production and created new jobs. The Grants have also played an active role in training Portuguese geothermal professionals and in establishing bilateral relationships between Portugal and Iceland. Because of its multidisciplinary, the subject of geothermal energy isn´t commonly taught at universities. That’s why the EEA Grants offered two Azorean professionals the opportunity to improve their scientific and technological skills by attending a six-month postgraduate geothermal training programme of the United Nations University (UNU-GTP) in Iceland. Twelve professionals and two students attended a shorter course at the university.

The EEA Grants’ Renewable Energy programme in Portugal funded 4 projects on geothermal energy for a total of €4,000,000.

Final project cost
The Grants fund projects that work towards a green, competitive and inclusive Europe in Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Consult the website for an overview of open funding calls.Consult the website for an overview of open funding calls.