Intelligent Energy

India and Iceland: The Lion and the Mouse

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Iceland, a country of 318,000 people, generates all its electricity from renewables. It could be on the verge of helping giant India map out a geothermal future.

Iceland, which arguably knows more about geothermal power than any other country, is in talks with India to help the world’s second most populous country build geothermal power stations.

Icelandic Minister for Foreign Affairs Össur Skarphédinsson on Wednesday returned from an 8-day tour of India, where he met with that country’s foreign minister S.M. Krishna , as well as with India's Minister of the Environment, Jairam Ramesh; Minister of New and Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah; Minister of Tourism, Subodh Kant Sahay and with the top officials from two states - Jammu and Kashmir, and Maharashtra.

“There may be 340 areas all over India where you have geothermal potential,” Kristjan Burgess, political advisor to Skarphédinsson who traveled with him, told SmartPlanet. “As a small nation, we value the relationship with a growing power like India. India will grow. They will need energy.”

Icelandic firm Reykjavik Geothermal is already working with Indian company Thermax, and is close to completing two small pilot geothermal electricity stations, one in the Ladakh region of Kashmir, and the other near Mumbai in Maharashtra state, Burgess said.

Iceland hopes that success at these two locations will lead to a further build-out of geothermal stations for electricity and heat around the country of 1.2 billion people. Geothermal could also help support tourism development akin to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, where bathers plunge into geothermal waters. Icelandic firms such as Reykjavik Geothermal would be involved in the plants’ design and construction. Skarphédinsson also discussed the possibility with Indian officials that Iceland would help India map a geothermal policy, Burgess said.

Iceland generates 100% of its electricity from renewable geothermal and hydropower sources, with geothermal representing a 25% and growing share (much of Iceland’s hydropower comes from melting glaciers, which some observers say have about 150 years left as a power source).

The sparsely populated island country of 318,000 people - with the same density, Manhattan would have 224 inhabitants - is highly geologically active, evidenced by last year’s infamous eruption of Mt. Eyjafjallajokull. Iceland straddles two major tectonic plates that are pulling apart, setting off frequent small earthquakes and making it relatively easy for the earth’s deep heat to rise to the surface, where power companies convert it to steam that drive turbines. (Jules Verne sent his travelers to the center of the earth through an Icelandic volcano).

Iceland hopes to spread geothermal technology – and work for Iceland – around the globe, not just in India. Renewed scrutiny of nuclear power safety following Japan’s Fukushima disaster could help its cause.

Skarphédinsson also discussed the possibility with Indian officials that Iceland help design and construct above-the-snowline hydropower stations in the Himalayas, a technology in which Iceland specializes. “That’s something we know better than most countries,” said Burgess.

In addition, he discussed the possibility of Indian companies locating in Iceland to make silicon chips and solar power equipment.

To help its economy recover from a late 2008 banking collapse, Iceland is trying to attract foreign companies to Iceland to take advantage of the country’s clean and steadily priced electricity. Icelandic power utilities are offering fixed price contracts for as long as 20 years- something Iceland hopes will lure manufacturers facing increasingly high and volatile fossil fuel-based energy prices.

New York City-based Globe Specialty Metals announced in February that is building a silicon metal plant in Iceland.

During the trip to India, Skarphédinsson also discussed India’s continued support for Iceland’s Economic Recovery Program through the International Monetary fund, as well as cooperation in fisheries and filmmaking.

Photo: Our Amazing Planet

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure