A frigid isle to show L.A. ways to tap Earth’s furnace

Times Staff Writer

What do Icelanders know about heat?

Quite a lot, it turns out. For 70 years, the chilly island nation has been tapping the Earth’s warmth -- using geothermal energy to heat buildings and swimming pools, melt snow and generate more than a quarter of the country’s electricity.

And now they’ve come to California to share the knowledge.

The effort will be formally launched today in downtown Los Angeles, where Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson and a handful of city and state officials will open the new headquarters of Iceland America Energy, the company that will lead Iceland’s geothermal push in North America.


“It’s really kind of unusual when you have this small country that’s coming in and helping the United States develop this resource,” said Curt Robinson, executive director of the Geothermal Resources Council, a nonprofit educational and scientific group based in Davis, Calif. “But they’ve been using geothermal in applied ways for several decades, very successfully. . . they have a fully developed energy economy and we don’t.”

While California struggles toward its ambitious goal of deriving 20% of its power from renewable sources by 2010, Iceland has already accomplished that and more, albeit on a much smaller scale. The country is almost completely powered from renewable sources -- 73.4% of it hydropower and 26.5% geothermal.

Last year, the company signed a contract with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to provide the San Francisco-based utility with 49 megawatts of power from a geothermal plant to be built near Truckhaven in Imperial County. The California Energy Commission chipped in a $700,000 grant to help fund the first well, which will be drilled next week.

The plant, which is expected to provide enough power to serve nearly 40,000 homes, is slated to open in 2010.

The Imperial Valley is expected to be a hotbed of geothermal production activity. So is the area around Bakersfield. One of the world’s largest geothermal reservoirs is north of San Francisco at the Geysers, which naturally generates steam from hot rock formations deep underground. It has been a reliable power producer in California for years.

Magnus Johannesson, chief executive of Iceland America Energy, said the company hopes to land a 35-megawatt contract with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and a project to use geothermal energy to heat homes and buildings in Mammoth Lake.

Despite being blessed with large geothermal resources, California gets only about 5% of its power from geothermal plants. That percentage will have to grow substantially if the state is to reach its 20% renewable-energy goal.

Mike Chrisman, the state’s resources secretary, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was “very pleased” that Iceland America Energy settled in California.

“Finding new sources of energy that we can utilize for the state of California is a high priority for us. . . and companies like this are going to help us get there,” Chrisman said. “They’re a world leader in geothermal energy, so they will help us.”

Iceland is about the size of Ohio, but its geology packs a punch. The island is dotted with 200 volcanoes, 600 hot springs and many active faults and fractures, bringing the intense heat of the Earth’s core much closer to the surface.

Geothermal power plants, whether in Iceland or California, collect the underground energy in the form of hot brine or steam, then use it to run electricity-generating turbines or pipe it elsewhere to heat buildings. Techniques vary, but gathering geothermal energy requires drilling wells to tap into an existing reservoir. In some cases, wells are drilled to inject water into the hot rock formations to produce steam.

Last year, Icelandic geothermal plants produced 2,631 gigawatt-hours of electricity. That’s a paltry sum compared to the more than 13,000 gigawatt-hours produced in 2006 from the geothermal plants in California, which still reigns as the world’s largest producer of that type of renewable power.

But it’s not the amount that impresses Iceland’s fans. It’s the wide-ranging uses the country has found for its geothermal wealth.

Only 28% of Iceland’s geothermal energy is used to create electricity. Most of the hot brine gets piped long distances to heat homes and businesses. Some is used by greenhouses, fish farms, swimming pools and industry to heat water or dry products.

There are places in California and elsewhere in the U.S. that have set up such “direct-use” geothermal projects, but most would be hard pressed to top Iceland’s ability to thoroughly tap the energy’s potential, according to Robinson of the Geothermal Resources Council.

“There’s a lot to be learned from their small scale,” Robinson said. “They’re leading the way in the ‘green’ rush.”