Unrenewable Renewable Energy? Iceland May Reach Geothermal Limits

If geothermal energy is renewable, it must also be available in endless supply – right?
Many Icelanders, whose nation is fueled almost entirely by hydropower or hot spring-harnessed (geothermal) energy, are beginning to question this line of thinking. Iceland is attempting to diversify its economy away from fishing, which it will replace with a (much disputed and power-intensive) aluminum industry. Icelanders are debating, among the other issues, whether or not there will be enough geothermal energy to make the transition.

Already, heavy industry consumes approximately 80 percent of the nation’s electricity. Underground hot water necessary to produce geothermal power could run out in as little as 70 years if Iceland’s resources are tapped too quickly. Importantly, these figures are not sheer conjecture; a new aluminum plant (already under construction), could, according to interviews with Iceland’s Nature Conservation Association head Arni Finnsson, use up almost all sources of geothermal energy in the southwest part of the country.
Not quite the preferred way to blow off some steam.
What, then, is Iceland – poised on a thin part of the earth’s crust perfect for drilling for geothermal resources – to do? It could compensate for geothermal energy loss by building more dams – an action environmental groups would decry, since hydropower is also not necessarily renewable. (Geothermal energy is also considered by many to be more environmentally friendly than hydroelectric energy.) Iceland could maximize its aluminum harvesting – but won’t that eventually run out, too? Or, the country could scrap the aluminum industry bolstering plan – to the detriment of precious fishing resources. Or it could tap into its diatomite supply….
Not surprisingly, a Google search for “solution to Iceland’s geothermal-aluminum debate” is inconclusive. The debate is multifaceted, backed on both sides by pressing economic factors, and, like most environmental planning controversies, based on evidence predicting outcomes yet to happen. The situation will simply have to unfold, engaging sustainability experts and aluminum industry proponents alike. May they keep their cool.

Sarah Harper is a professional writer based in San Francisco, California. Her interests include sustainability, government policy, and international politics. In her free time, Sarah enjoys toying with the idea of holistic health, overanalysis, and plotting world exploration.