V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Steaming off in Iceland

For more photos, please visit the Photo Gallery.

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers October, 2008.

I'm in hot water, with mud on my face.

Figuratively, such a combination would be a disgrace. But on this occasion, I'm literally sitting in a hot mineral stew at the Blue Lagoon, a famous Icelandic spa, smeared in a white silica mud mask.

In the distance, smokestacks of the Svartsengi power plant, the source of my spa treatment, blow plumes of steam into the cold October wind.

The water is a byproduct of the geothermal power plant. After pumping lava-heated groundwater from 2 km below the surface, steam is used to generate electricity and the hot water to heat local homes.

Six million litres of the excess runoff, or geothermal brine, is then piped into the lagoon, a milky-blue water rich in "biostuff" such as minerals, silica and algae, and maintained at a temperature of between 37C-39C.

The murky water feels soft on the skin. It's been scientifically proven to help treat psoriasis patients and attracts visitors from around the world. It's perhaps the most colourful example of how Iceland has turned around in the last 40 years to maximize its natural resources and wean itself off oil.

Iceland gets 99% of its electricity from renewable sources: Kinetic energy from rivers and glaciers is harnessed to generate hydropower, and about 20% of the country is run on geothermal energy. In the winter, geothermal systems melt snow on sidewalks and driveways and heat 90% of homes.

Water is so clean it's piped straight into city taps without being treated or chlorinated. A pollution-free environment is said to be one of the reasons why life expectancy on the island of 300,000 is among the highest in the world and, it's said, to turn out some of the best looking women in the world.

The country straddles the mid-Atlantic ridge where the European and American continental plates meet. Volcanic systems and deep, porous lava rocks have carved out a country dotted with more than 800 natural hot springs. In the last few decades the country has started to tap into their renewable energy potential.

Albert Albertsson prefers to call the Svartsengi power plant a "resource park" because it delivers several revenue streams. Geothermal energy provides 17,000 people with hot water for heating, 45,000 residents with their electricity needs, and 400,000 yearly visitors with a spa experience.

"We holistically look at every available resource we have," he says. "In essence ... we do our utmost not to waste energy."

Iceland is now in an international race to become the first carbon-neutral country in the world. New Zealand, Norway and Costa Rica have also thrown their hats into the ring as participants of the Climate Neutral Network, a UN Environment Programme initiative. The government has also set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50%- 75% from 1990 levels by 2050.

But the global economic crisis has hit this small Nordic country hard. I arrive with a group of journalists the day after the government takes control of the major banks to ward off national bankruptcy.

Despite the economic crisis, the country's president -- an elected head of state -- hasn't canceled our scheduled meeting and graciously receives us in his official residence with flutes of champagne and dainty macaroons.

We don't know then that days after our meeting, President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson would be hospitalized after undergoing coronary angioplasty.

Of the financial crisis and environmental interests, we ask him if the twain can ever meet.

"The economy is more closely linked to the environment than ever before," he said.

"Those who think they can delay the problem are being shortsighted. They are perhaps relics of debates from years ago, of whether (climate change) was really happening," he says. "It seems now the only disagreement in the scientific community is how much time we've got."

Some of the country's biggest challenges in achieving its targets will be to convert its fishing fleets and change driver behaviour, which still depend on imported fossil fuels. Ironically, despite its renewable energy record, Iceland has a love affair with gas-guzzling SUVs.

Meanwhile, engineers are musing about what kind of energy potential lies even deeper under the earth in the Iceland Deep Drilling Project. Currently, typical geothermal wells range up to 2.5 km deep and produce steam at about 300 C. But it's estimated that drilling boreholes as deep as 5 km would reach temperatures of 400 C to 600 C and could be enough to generate 10 times the current output.

"We have easy access to heat sources," Grimsson said. "In the days of global warming and climate change, I am of the opinion we have to go after this clean energy inside the middle of the Earth as well as sun energy."

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