Iceland’s geothermal station powers an entire economy

Svartsengi’s plant in Iceland has been in operation for decades and continues to build on its legacy as the facility’s electricity generation and hot water support new businesses and provide a remarkable example of the power of renewable energy.

Power plants are important to local communities and often serve as the backbone of a regional economy, with homes and businesses dependent on the electricity a facility produces.

In Iceland, the country’s geothermal power plants support a national economy, bring innovation to energy production and stimulate the development of new industries. A good example is Svartsengi (Figure 1), a geothermal power plant that first came online more than 40 years ago and continues to evolve. It provides electricity and hot water and serves as a heating system for the residents of the Reykjanes Peninsula. The Resource Park in Svartsengi includes several companies that use the power station’s resources, including the world-famous Blue Lagoon spa, cosmetics manufacturers, biotechnology companies, and aquaculture companies.

1. Pipes and steam are important features of any geothermal power station, and Svartsengi is no exception. The plant has approximately 75 MW of power generation capacity, with 150 MW of thermal energy. Svartsengi was built in stages, starting in the 1970s. Courtesy: Sigurjon Ragnar / Green of Iceland

The park has also supported green methanol production, in a process that captures the carbon emissions from the power plant and converts them into green methanol, a low-carbon fuel that can be made from biomass gasification, or renewable electricity and captured carbon dioxide. Svartsengi’s importance to an entire country, not just the local community, and its status as the home of the innovative Resource Park makes the facility a worthy recipient of a CURRENT Top Plant Award for Renewable Energy.

“Geothermal energy has had a significant impact on Iceland, both economically and by contributing to a high quality of life,” said Dagný Jónsdóttir, Resource Park manager. “In the 20th century, Iceland changed from one of the poorest countries in Europe, depending on imported coal as an energy source, to a country with a high standard of living and where virtually all stationary energy comes from domestic renewable sources. This reduces economic exposure to external energy markets.

“Svartsengi has for many years been a model for other Icelandic geothermal stations as well as a model for the multiple use of source streams from geothermal power generation,” Jónsdóttir said. She said CURRENT“Svartsengi’s primary goal has always been to serve the neighboring communities by providing critical infrastructure, such as heating, drinking water and a stable power supply.”

Jónsdóttir noted that geothermal energy “is mostly used for space heating and electricity generation, with nine out of ten households being heated with geothermal energy.” [the rest is mainly coming from hydropower]It also allows for other amenities such as heated pools all year round and heated sports fields, streets and parking during the snowy winter. Several industries have also gained a foothold in Iceland due to geothermal energy, for example some types of fish farming on land and greenhouses, industries that would not exist here without the geothermal energy source.”

Factory built in six phases

Yngvi Guðmundsson, chief engineer at Svartsengi, said the plant was built in six phases. The first phase, a 50 MW thermal unit, was commissioned in 1977 but has since been decommissioned. Phase II, a 110 MW thermal unit, was commissioned in 1980, along with Phase III, which has 6 MW of electricity generating capacity.

Phase IV, an 8 MW power unit, came online in 1989. Phase V, with a thermal capacity of 80 MW and a capacity of 30 MW, started in 1999. Phase VI came online in 2008 and delivered 30 MW of power generation capacity.

Guðmundsson said Svartsengi’s power generation comes from Phase III through Phase VI units. Stage III is a back pressure turbine (6 bara to 1.2 bara) from Fuji Electric Japan. Stage IV is a 7x Organic Rankine Cycle (ORC) turbine from Ormat (1.2 bara inlet pressure steam from the back pressure unit).

Phase V is a single flash condensing steam turbine from Fuji Electric Japan (6.5 bara inlet pressure). Phase VI, Guðmundsson said, is a “single turbine consisting of 10 MW back pressure turbine (15.5 bara to 6.5 bara) and 20 MW condensing turbine (6.5 bara inlet pressure) on the same turbine rotor.”

“Each phase has had its own purpose and they were usually very different,” said Guðmundsson. “The main purpose of the first two phases was to provide hot water to neighboring communities, which at the time depended on coal and oil for heating. The third stage was a back pressure steam turbine, allowing HS Orka [the plant’s operator] also to generate electricity. The fourth phase was the result of optimization efforts of the feedstock flows, requiring less direct steam for heating, which in turn could be used in the ORC unit for further electricity generation.

“The fifth phase was a direct expansion of the geothermal reservoir with new wells and a way to meet future hot water demand as the surrounding communities grew rapidly,” Guðmundsson said. “The turbine installed in the fifth stage is a cogeneration unit, where the unit’s cooling serves as preheating water for hot water production. The sixth phase was an optimization phase in which the long experience gained in using the geothermal resource allowed further expansion with a new 30 MW unit.

Guðmundsson told CURRENT“HS Orka is currently planning a new rehabilitation and expansion phase, with older units [from Phases III and IV] will be decommissioned and the use of steam and brine further optimized in a new and more efficient turbine.”

Research, Development and Optimization

Jónsdóttir and Guðmundsson said Svartsengi has fueled a strong research and development focus within HS Orka, leading to continuous improvements to the plant and its operations.

“This has resulted not only in a better optimization of the factory, but also in the creation of the Resource Park, which exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit within HS Orka,” said Jónsdóttir. “Excess resources come from power generation and there was demand from companies to use these resources, an opportunity to be located next to a power plant and get input into their operations so that our ‘waste’ becomes value for these companies. This is a concept that has been in development for years and was a bit ahead of its time, as an example of circular economy and industrial symbiosis.”

Jónsdóttir said the Svartsengi and Reykjanes geothermal plants are Iceland’s only resource park, but “other companies also use the resources from their geothermal power plants. ON Power operates a geothermal park utilizing multiple source streams from Hellisheiði Power Plant and Landsvirkjun [Iceland’s national power company] currently uses the geothermal resources of their factories in several companies.”

Resource Park in Svartsengi supports several power generation and hot water businesses, including Blue Lagoon, a spa famous in the medical community. The site has provided treatment for psoriasis patients for nearly 30 years, and researchers have confirmed the efficacy of Blue Lagoon’s geothermal seawater for treating the skin disease.

“There’s a lot of interest in what we’re doing from outside Iceland,” said Fannar Jónsson, Quality and Environmental Manager at Blue Lagoon. “Geothermal energy is much greener and people are looking to us to help them find solutions for development, for sustainable development. It’s about: ‘How can we use this resource as efficiently as possible?’

“It’s great to be part of the Resource Park and to take advantage of the power plant for our electricity and hot water use,” said Jónsson. “We want to be carbon neutral when it comes to our activities. We can compensate our CO2 emissions for flights, we compensate for the buses for our employees and guests [carbon] for our product shipping. Blue Lagoon is a good example of a circular economy.”

Blue Lagoon, in addition to offering its spa treatments, is also known as a wellness company that produces skin care products. “We produce soap and bath salts, and everything we produce is natural. Our products combine the purity of nature and the power of science,” said Jónsson, noting that the spa’s products are based on the primary bioactive elements of geothermal seawater: silica, algae and minerals.

“Svartsengi is a local leader in implementing the mindset of treating waste as value with its Resource Park,” said Kamma Thordarson, project manager at Green by Iceland, a group that supports Iceland’s renewable energy initiatives. “This is becoming increasingly important as there is a need to move to a more circular way of using all resources.”

Jónsdóttir, pointing out the importance of Svartsengi for innovation driving the Icelandic energy sector both now and in the future, told CURRENT“Iceland has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040 and become the first country to be independent from fossil fuels by then.”

Said Thordarson: “Geothermal energy is essential to Iceland’s economy and environmental goals. The mix of geothermal and hydropower in our energy system ensures 100% renewable energy in both home heating and electricity production. As we aim for Iceland’s carbon neutrality by 2040, this energy mix gives us a certain advantage.” An advantage, as Jónsson said, “being studied by the rest of the world.”

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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