Power Plan

Power Plan

Iceland uses geothermal energy to provide water and heat to residents.


6 - 12+


Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Physics

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Even though it’s a small country, Iceland is rich in natural resources. The island nation, which is about the size of the U.S. state of Kentucky, is located in the middle of the northern Atlantic Ocean, between Greenland and Scandinavia. Cloud-colored glaciers cover mountain peaks, and waterfalls dangle like tinsel down cliff faces. Across certain areas of Iceland, geysers smoke like battlefields before erupting from the Earth in fire-hose-like blasts of hot water.

Tucked under a volcanic region known as Hengill, surrounded by chunks of dark volcanic rock, the Nesjavellir Power Plant is a fine example of how Iceland harnesses its abundant natural resources for its citizens’ needs.

Inside the white complex’s lobby, Nesjavellir Power Plant public relations guide Valgar∂ur Lyngdall Jónsson explains how the facility produces both hot water and energy from the area’s surroundings with minimal impact on the environment.

Dressed in a light-blue collared shirt and black pants, Jónsson jabs a thumb toward the mountain above the power plant and says it is an active volcano that last erupted 2,000 years ago. Currently, precipitation that falls on the nearby highlands seeps into the ground and becomes heated by hot bedrock. Bedrock is the solid rock beneath Earth’s soil and sand. This bedrock has been warmed by its proximity to the volcano’s magma.

Volcanic activity occurs in Iceland because the nation is situated on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, a boundary region where the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate are pulling apart. “We are basically standing on the rift itself,” Jónsson says. “We are standing on thin crust, so to speak.”

Jónsson describes Iceland’s history of using the naturally warmed water beneath the island’s crust to heat buildings on the surface. This heating process is known as geothermal heating. Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and largest city, began to use hot water from under Earth’s surface to heat a local school as far back as 1930, when Reykjavík District Heating was formed.

After geothermal energy was discovered to be a feasible way to warm Iceland’s structures, drilling began in areas outside of Reykjavík. Engineers drilled in an attempt to uncover regions with supplies of geothermal water. In 1990, Reykjavík Energy, a utility company, opened Nesjavellir Power Plant in one of Iceland’s best geothermal areas. Today, there are six geothermal power plants in Iceland.

Geothermal Power

Leaving the lobby, Jónsson takes us upstairs to a spic-and-span corridor, where a set of windows overlook a room filled with gleaming metal pipes and containers. Here, he explains the three power-harnessing cycles of the power plant. First, the facility collects steam and hot water from 27 wells drilled into the ground. Second, the steam is channeled into steam turbines.

A turbine is a machine that takes energy from a flow of fluid, such as water or air. The flow of steam into the turbines at Nesjavellir moves a generator that produces electricity. In the third cycle at Nesjavellir, six cold-water wells bring cooler water to the surface, which is heated by the steam collected during the creation of hot water.

“Everything is done to utilize the energy as much as possible,” Jónsson says.

The warm water created by the third cycle of the power plant is pumped up to the mountain above Nesjavellir via a pipeline. Then, the pipeline brings the warmed water 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) down to the residents of Reykjavík. The pipeline is so well-insulated that the water only loses 1.8° Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) on its journey. Jónsson says that just viewing the pipeline filled with heated water during the country’s colder months is a testament to how well the pipe is insulated. “In winter, when it snows, the snow doesn’t melt on top of the pipeline,” he says.

Meanwhile, the electricity produced by Nesjavellir travels to an electricity network via a 31-kilometer (19.3-mile) transmission line before going to businesses and homes. The transmission line is buried underground for 13 of the 31 kilometers to minimize any negative effects to the environment.

Jónsson admits that the power plant creates a by-product that is potentially detrimental to the environment. Nesjavellir releases steam containing small quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and hydrogen sulfide, which can transform into sulfur dioxide, a chemical compound that can cause acid rain.

“This is a problem,” Jónsson says. “This is pollution, though it’s nothing compared to coal plants.”

Renewable Energy Sources

The public relations guide says that the critical factor at Nesjavellir is the water supply underneath us. As long as that water doesn’t run out, the power plant should be able to run for many more years. One way that Nesjavellir ensures that the water supply doesn’t dry up is by removing the wastewater from the power plant’s processes and putting it back into the system.

“This is considered to be a renewable energy source,” Jónsson says of the water.

Utilizing the byproducts in every way possible, Reykjavík Energy also uses wastewater to help melt snow on Reykjavík’s sidewalks. After hot water has heated homes and businesses, it is transferred into small pipes laid under the city’s sidewalks. The heated water in the pipes melts ice and snow on the surface above during the country’s cold winter months.

In addition, Nesjavellir and the other geothermal power plants in Iceland have generated an unexpected by-product from their energy creation: tourism. Jónsson says that Nesjavellir and the neighboring Hellishei∂i Geothermal Power Plant, which is still under construction, welcome between 6,000 and 8,000 tourists a month.

The runoff water from another geothermal power plant, Svartsengi, has become the most popular tourist destination in Iceland: the Blue Lagoon. The milky blue pool of mineral-rich hot water has become a spa. The Blue Lagoon attracted more than 408,000 tourists (more people than the entire population of Iceland) in 2008.

Fast Fact

Smoky Bay
Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, means "smoky bay." The city does sit on a bay, Faxafloi Bay in southwestern Iceland. But there is no smoke! Early settlers thought steam rising from the area's geothermal vents and hot springs were smoke.

Media Credits

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 3, 2024

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