Intelligent Energy

Obama goes volcanic

Posting in Energy

The president is due to fly from Ireland to London on Tuesday. But a volcano in Iceland - the land of geothermal energy - once again threatens European air travel. Will he make the flight?

UK authorities are playing down the likelihood that a freshly erupting Icelandic volcano will shut down air travel. But could that be because there’s a passenger named Barack Obama who’s scheduled to fly from Ireland to London on Tuesday?

Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano erupted Saturday night. One UK airline, Scotalnd’s Loganair today announced it is cancelling flights on Tuesday because weather forecasts indicate that “a high density of ash will be present in large parts of Scottish airspace.”

Last year, an ash cloud from Iceland’s Mt. Eyjafjallajokull caused aviation authorities across Europe to shut down flights.

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority is today not ruling out closing airspace again, but says that it is better prepared than it was last year. In a press release, its chief executive Andrew Haines notes, “Our number one priority is to ensure the safety of people both onboard aircraft and on the ground. We can’t rule out disruption, but the new arrangements that have been put in place since last year’s ash cloud mean the aviation sector is better prepared and will help to reduce any disruption in the event that volcanic ash affects UK airspace.”

And the BBC quotes foreign secretary William Hague saying, “I think we are far better prepared and we'll have far better information and intelligence which allows us to adjust things without necessarily the blanket bans on flights which we saw last year, but of course it depends on how the situation develops.”

Then again, Hague is expecting a rather important guest on Tuesday: President Obama.

This saga has added meaning for fans of renewable energy. Once again, the Icelandic eruption reminds us of the good side of volcanoes: the forces that power them are wrapped up in the game geological boiling, bubbling, rumbling and tumbling that helps generate geothermal electricity. In Iceland, geothermal power accounts for a growing 25 percent of the country’s electricity, which is 100 percent renewable- the balance comes from the hydro power of melting glaciers and rivers.

If the president is grounded, perhaps he can use the extra time on the Emerald Isle to reflect on the possibility that geothermal power could help feed the U.S grid. One MIT study estimates that the U.S. has enough geothermal potential to satisfy 2,000 times its energy needs.

UPDATE: A few hours after this story posted, news broke that President Obama is cutting short his stay in Ireland and flying to London on Monday night, to avoid a possible ash cloud. BA and KLM, like Loganair earlier, cancelled Tuesday passenger flights in Scotland.  Maybe, just maybe, this will get the president thinking about harnessing geothermal power.

Photo: SmartPlanet

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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