Icelandic Heating

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Between here and there

Bob and I were getting some fresh air out in front of our hotel in Reykjavik. It was March; it was snowing, and Bob and I were on our way back to New York from Germany. We had spent days there, roaming the streets, riding the trains, talking to people, and looking at the buildings. We also went to the big ISH show, but we balanced what we heard at the show against what we saw in the cities. It’s important to do that with ISH because that beast of a show has the power to blind you. ISH is about what’s possible. The streets are about what is.

A guy was smoking near us in front of the hotel and he laughed at something one of us had said, so we said hello and learned that he was from Boston. He told us that he was there with his wife, who worked for Icelandair, which prompted me to say, “She must be beautiful.”

“Nah, she’s American,” he said.

Boston. Gotta love it.

I’ve been to the ISH show in Frankfurt 11 times, and when flying back to New York, we’ve always flown over Iceland. It has always called up to me and I’ve yearned for its stark beauty. You can tell, even from 38,000 feet, that this place is special. I’d tell my friends that we absolutely had to stop there the next time, but we never got around to it, until this last trip, that is. I finally won them over by researching all the geothermal magic the Icelanders were performing. I told them we could get to see all of that. I explained that Iceland is doing things with heating that no one else in the world is doing, and I finally wore them down. We were there.

In 1973, OPEC decided to shut off the oil faucet, and we had to wait on long lines to get gasoline. The price of fuel spiked and the heating industry changed forever. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember.

And, oh, we were going to do magnificent things in America! We were going to change our ways, and there was such hope and invention, but then, being Americans, we fell back into our old habits as soon as the price of fuel fell a bit. We accept high prices, as long as they’re not rising. We get used to them, and we pay. We send our money to countries that want to kill us, and we’re perfectly okay with that. It’s just the way we are.

The folks in Iceland are different. In 1974, they decided to get off fossil fuels in a hurry, and they put together a plan. They drilled holes in the ground and brought up this super-hot water that lies not very far below the surface. They could drill down just 600 feet and hit water that’s twice the boiling point. They could do this because Iceland is made of lava and magma and snow, and it’s expanding by about an inch a year. The tectonic plates are moving away from each other, not toward each other, and that’s the secret to their success. They have constant earthquake action, but it’s not the Japanese sort that knocks down buildings. They have the type of earthquakes that keeps the pot stirred, always pulling the plates apart and leaving spaces into which the water from the glaciers and the water from the sea can seep. It takes about 200 years for surface water to reach down through the porous lava to where the magma lives. When it gets there, it turns to high-pressure brine, which becomes steam that can turn huge turbines. These massive machines make enough electricity to power 80 percent of the country.

The steam screams from the high-pressure turbines, into the low-pressure turbines, and then on into the heat exchangers that make domestic hot water for most of the country. The waste water then flows under the parking lots and sidewalks to melt the snow. Some of that waste also flows into the Blue Lagoon, which sits next to the power plant and is one of the most beautiful spas in the world. They gather up the minerals from the waste water and turn these into expensive cosmetics.

And when they’re done with all that, they pump the rest of the waste water, which is nearly all of it, back into the ground, where it turns back into steam and comes roaring up again into the high-pressure turbines. It’s a circle of engineering and power that’s both primal and somehow mythological. This is the earth giving itself to the people. I asked our guide how long an installation such as this could sustain itself. I don’t mean the equipment, which will need replacing, but the earth beneath the high-pressure, geothermal plant. How long can this cycle of take and give back continue before it runs out? “We estimate a hundred-thousand years for this location,” he said. I had to think about that for a good long time.

As you drive around and look at this starkly gorgeous landscape, you’ll notice these brightly painted tanks up on a hill over there, or level with the homes over here. They look like American oil- or gas tanks, but they’re not. They contain hot water that flows naturally from the earth. It comes right out of the ground and flows to people’s faucets. You have to be very careful when showering in Iceland because the domestic hot water temperature is nearly 180 degrees and OSHA is nowhere to be seen. You’re expected to practice common sense in this country.

I was in a bar with friends, and chatting with the bartender about all of this. He drew a glass of cold water from the tap and had me taste it. It was as pure as anything I’ve ever tasted. It comes from a high aquifer. Then he drew a glass of hot water, which comes from a few hundred feet below the cold-water aquifer. He told me to taste it once it cooled. I did and then made a face. It tasted of sulfur. “We don’t drink that,” he said.

“But you give it to me?” I said.

“You asked,” he shrugged. And now I know, and I’ll never forget it, and that’s better than any textbook.

That same hot water flows through heat exchangers in people’s homes. The homes have no chimneys, which you notice from the plane as you’re landing. The hot water flows to the radiators, and also to the snowmelt systems under the walkways and driveways. I asked how much all of this costs and our guide told us he pays about $130 a month for the electricity, heating, and snow melting in his modest home. Imagine that.

There are few trees in Iceland. During the 14th Century, the people cut the trees and used them for firewood. Once the trees were gone, the relentless wind roared in and blew the topsoil out to sea. They didn’t know this would happen, but by the time they figured it out, it was too late. Some things are too precious to waste, but we often don’t realize that until they’re gone.

As I walked the streets of Germany with Bob, we talked about the quality of their windows. German law doesn’t allow you to have lousy windows. Lousy windows waste fuel and Germans know how to write laws.

Wander around Reykjavik and you’ll see windows such as those we have in America – some good, but most are old and drafty. It doesn’t matter as much there in Iceland because the heat is abundant, forever, and costs so little.

An Icelander asked me if I had heard that they have no army and I said, yes, I had heard that. “It’s not true,” he said. “We do have an army. It’s called Salvation.” And he clapped me on the shoulder and let loose the most wonderful laugh.

“Also, did you know,” he said, “that our island is expanding one inch per year?”

“Yes,” I said.

He looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening, and then he whispered, “That’s our secret plan to take over the world!” And we both laughed until it hurt.

Somewhere between here and there is this magical place called Iceland, where the people share everything and laugh most of the time. Go there if you can. See what they’re doing with energy. Listen to their stories and take in the beauty of the place. It has the power to change you.


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