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.

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  1. Spanish company touts process to turn urban waste into biodiesel
    By Ron Kotrba
    A group of Spanish developers working under the company name Ecofasa, headed by chief executive officer and inventor Francisco Angulo, has developed a biochemical process to turn urban solid waste into a fatty acid biodiesel feedstock. “It took more than 10 years working on the idea of producing biodiesel from domestic waste using a biological method,” Angulo told Biodiesel Magazine. “My first patent dates back to 2005. It was first published in 2007 in Soto de la Vega, Spain, thanks to the council and its representative Antonio Nevado.”
    Using microbes to convert organic material into energy isn’t a new concept to the renewable energy industries, and the same can be said for the anaerobic digestion of organic waste by microbes, which turns waste into biogas consisting mostly of methane. However, using bacteria to convert urban waste to fatty acids, which can then be used as a feedstock for biodiesel production, is a new twist. The Spanish company calls this process and the resulting fuel Ecofa. “It is based on metabolism’s natural principle by means of which all living organisms, including bacteria, produce fatty acids,” Angula said. “[It] comes from the carbon of any organic waste.”
    He defined urban waste as “organic wastes from home like food, paper, wood and dung,” and added that any carbon-based material can be used for biodiesel production under the Ecofa process. “For many years, I wondered why there are pools of oil in some mountains,” he said, explaining the reasoning behind his invention. “After delving into the issue, I realized that [those oil deposits] were produced by decomposing organic living microorganisms.” This, in Angulo’s mind, sparked the idea that food waste and bacteria could be turned into fatty acids that could react into biodiesel. Two types of bacteria are under further development by Biotit Scientific Biotechnology Laboratory in Seville, Spain: E. coli and Firmicutes. The Ecofa process also produces methane gas, and inconvertible solids that can be used as a soil amendment or fertilizer. “There is a huge variety of bacteria,” Angulo said. “Currently, [biodiesel producers] receive a fat that must be processed through transesterification into biodiesel, but we are also working on other types of bacteria that are capable of producing fatty acids with the same characteristics as biodiesel.” He said this would eventually allow producers to skip the transesterification step.
    Ecofasa may avoid the ongoing food-versus-fuel debate and its expected successor, indirect land use, with its Ecofa process. “It would not be necessary to use specific fields of maize, wheat, barley, beets, etc., which would remain for human consumption without creating distortions or famines with unforeseeable consequences,” the company stated in a press release. “This microbial technique can be extended to other organic debris, plants or animals, such as those contained in urban sewage. You can even experiment with other carbon sources, and this opens up a lot of possibilities. It is only necessary to find the appropriate bacteria.”
    The company created its name by combining the term “eco-combustible” with F.A., the initials of the inventor.
    “Today we feel that we can produce between one and two liters [of biodiesel] per 10 kilograms of trash,” Angulo said. That’s a little more than one-fourth to one-half of a gallon for every 22 pounds of trash – or between 24 and 48 gallons per ton of urban waste. “We are working to improve that,” he said.

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