Iceland is not only scenic and stunning, it’s powerful, too. Geothermal power makes the land of Iceland hot and buzzy. Not only that, it makes clean electricity and heat for the Icelanders. We mean, you don’t really expect Iceland juicy tomatoes to grow wild between the geysers and glaciers, right?
Not only Iceland is blessed, Geothermal energy could power the world for generations to come. And the best thing is: We can find Geothermal energy in every place on this planet. It’s a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels for countries around the world. As an example, Indonesia sits on the Ring of Fire, and it gives them the biggest Geothermal potential in the world.
But it is still largely untapped and most people will never have heard of it and have no comprehension of what Geothermal is. So how does Geothermal energy works? And why is so much of it still not being used?
Icelanders are very proud of how Geothermal energy has changed the country. The country moved from being a poor country primarily using imported oil and coal to transforming their energy system. And Geothermal energy together with renewables became for Iceland what Chocolate and Banking are for Switzerland.
The energy creates heat for around nine out of ten houses and almost 30% of the country’s electricity, even though this eruptive transformation took some time. Historically, of course, there were hot pools where people used for centuries to bathe and clean clothes. Just like in other countries around the world.
For example, in Italy, the very first experimental Geothermal generator was set up in 1904 by an Italian aristocrat named Prince Conti. The power it produced lit up five light bulbs. The start of a Geothermal energy revolution? Not really!
The World Wars absorbed technological capabilities and prevented the idea from spreading. Also, this was at that time a new idea and people were not sure exactly how to make money on this. Because unlike oil, steam couldn’t just be sold in barrels.
Geo means Earth and Thermal means Heat. Geothermal energy is heat from the earth. And the deeper you go, the hotter it gets. And this heat warms water that has seeped into underground reservoirs.
You can drill to access it, or – at the tectonic plate boundaries – the water breaks through the earth’s surface as steam or hot water all by itself. If you are really clever, you can direct that into a turbine and generate electricity. And then after using it, the cold water is pumped back into the earth and inside the earth it’s heated again on the way to the producing valve. It’s like a cycle of hot and cold water.
An almost limitless renewable source that can be used for heat and electricity. Like in Iceland, where Geothermal energy has become more important. It was pushed in the 1970’s when the oil crisis hit the world and shook tiny Iceland as well. There was an oil embargo and as a solution to the energy crisis of the 1970’s, the district heating effort was speeded up and almost all imported oil was eliminated.
A success story, but one that created new problems. It was expanded very rapidly and today the electricity consumption in Iceland is by far the highest in the world per capita. And around 80% of it is used by energy intensive industries like aluminum smelters.
Of course, the energy used is green and renewable, but the country’s appearance has changed, with pipes and infrastructure visible. So, there is this continuing, ongoing debate, as to how much Iceland should build these power plants.
Nevertheless, countries around the world are learning from Iceland and are keen to use the technology back home. And especially in Indonesia, this could be a gamechanger.
Indonesia is an island country. It’s an archipelago because it consist of thousands of islands. They are located along the equator and on top of a ring of active volcanoes, the so-called Ring of Fire, which is seismically active until now.
This gives Indonesia the biggest Geothermal potential in the world. Approximately 29 gigawatts of potential Geothermal power is spread across hundreds of locations on several islands such as Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and Bali.
But how much is that really? 29GW?
Well, in ”Back to the Future”, the popular movie in the 80’s, it took 1.21GW to travel through time. A crazy number back then.
Today, 29GW can be expressed as the output per year of 29 medium-sized nuclear power plants or 12,344 wind turbines. That means, potentially, more than one third of Indonesia’s energy capacity could come from Geothermal power plants one day.
As of now, it’s still mostly powered by coal. 62% of Indonesia’s electricity comes from coal. And in Indonesia, they have weak emission standard for coal power plants, hence why the air pollution is bad. It’s essential for the country to change their energy choice.
Geothermal energy could be a smart choice. It is available 24 hours per day, 365 per year, in contrast, to solar on cloudy days or wind when the wind doesn’t blow. As it is a clean technology, it could help decarbonize the power sector. Not only in Indonesia, but in other parts of the world as well. Around 3-4% of global energy demand by 2050 could be supplied from Geothermal, estimates say.
However, today just around a quarter of the known potential around the world is being used. One reason is: It is not attractive to investors in the short term because it takes years to develop. Once the operation is firmly developed, and everything is running well, it is definitely a cash cow. You are making money left and right, but it takes a long time and people are impatient.
Another problem is: Geothermal exploration could trigger earthquakes. Not just the drilling itself, but removing the steam and returning the water can destabilize the underground. It’s rare, but it can happen.
And in Indonesia, there is also resistance because many areas are sacred. Local people are not keen if their holy place is drilled for Geothermal energy. Since coal is still the top priority in Indonesia, it’s hard to sell the idea of green Geothermal energy. Local people who live close to the region of Geothermal energy resources, they don’t talk about climate change, they don’t talk about green energy because the issue of green energy is not really popular in Indonesia.
Not only will it take time to further promote the benefits of renewable energy, but the industry itself needs more time as well. It’s not possible to drill deeper than about nine to ten kilometers because then it’s so hot that the drilling equipment will just melt. And that’s why most of the Geothermal potential will stay untapped for longer.
Yes, there may be fifty thousand times all the oil and gas energy beneath the surface of the planet. Is it accessible? No, it’s not accessible yet. But eventually someday, it will be possible. Despite some technological problems, Geothermal energy seems to have great potential, not only in Iceland but around the world. And if we have learned something from the Icelanders, it’s that other countries could start promoting and investing much more into it. After all, Geothermal energy is a great and clean source of power waiting to be used underneath our surface.