08/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What I Learned on Summer Vacation (About Geothermal Power)

I was in Iceland last week, and in addition to (a) spending a weekend in the most unbelievably beautiful place in the world and (b) eating some delicious marinated whale steaks, I came across the best thing ever -- this house under construction in downtown Reyjkavik with awesome geothermal coils for heating:


Aren't they pretty!? Iceland, you may or may not know, sits atop a series of volcanoes, craters and glaciers, which makes it home to some of the most abundant geothermal heat in the world. Combined with its investments in water-generated hydro-power and hydrogen fuel, Iceland is close to being the world's first and only completely energy-independent nation, and the country has almost no carbon footprint at all. (*)

How fabulous, though, to get a peek inside a partial house and see it laid out like that -- it just made me so happy to think of a nice Icelandic family preparing whale for me guests in their warm kitchen in the heat of winter, or their tall, lithe, blond 19-year old son showering himself slowly in the naturally-heated geothermal shower ... I was just thrilled.

I was curious about the coils. I wondered four things: (1) How does it work, (2) Could we do it here? (3) What's so good about it? and (4) Are there strange or related advances in how geothermal is being used? I looked it all up -- now you get to know too. Are you ready?

As for what geothermal heat really is, and how it works, the Union of Concerned Scientists has a great summary. Here are the basics:

Heat from the earth can be used as an energy source in many ways, from large and complex power stations to small and relatively simple pumping systems. The most common current way of capturing the energy from geothermal sources is to tap into naturally occurring "hydrothermal convection" systems where cooler water seeps into Earth's crust, is heated up, and then rises to the surface. When heated water is forced to the surface, it is a relatively simple matter to capture that steam and use it to drive electric generators.

An approach to capturing the heat in the Earth's drier areas is known as "hot dry rock." The rocks are first broken up by pumping high-pressure water through them. Water is then pumped from the surface down through the broken hot rocks. After the water heats up, it is brought back to the surface through a second well and used to drive turbines for electricity or to provide heat.

Great. So there's heat in the ground, you pump it out, you shoot it into the pipes, and then my fictional sinewy blond Icelandic friend gets to take his shower. If you prefer visuals (of geothermal heat, not the sinewy Icelandic friend) here's a handy industry-produced educational video:


Neat. And protected from vandalism. That was my favorite part. The tragedy for Iceland, of course, is that while their economy has completely collapsed, and they have access to abundant, renewable, cheap and sustainable energy, the energy can't be exported, traded or sold. It's stuck there. While the rest of the world fights wars over energy and struggles to "green" their power supply, Icelanders are the among the only countries who can lounge in their own geothermal largesse (really! do it here, or here in the country's North.) But until someone figures out how to put geothermal electricity in a box or a tube, they can't make any money off of it on a global scale.

So, can we use it here?

We already do! California, Idaho and other parts of the West are on the Pacific Rim, a naturally-verdant home for geothermal energy. It provides 5 percent of California's electricity, and it's been generating heat in places like Idaho, Reno and Salt Lake City for years. Above is a handy map.

Geothermal power is something that could be used more frequently here in America. It has been used sparingly because the startup costs are high, but also - like wind, solar and biofuels -- lobbying and political intransigence have made it difficult to put geothermal in place. Also there's a little catch -- sometimes near the plants it can smell like rotten eggs.

So why is it so great? Well,

A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found geothermal heated homes are 72 percent more efficient than electric heating and air conditioning systems.The U.S. Department of Energy found that heat pumps can save a typical home hundreds of dollars in energy costs each year, with the system paying for itself in 2 to 10 years. It is one of the few renewable energy technologies that--like fossil fuels--can supply continuous, base load power.

Great! So half the country should be using it to help power our homes and communities. But Ben, are there completely ostentatious, largely preposterous ways people are using geothermal power to strange extremes, like how Americans like to do? YES. This is my favorite thing ever:

Underground Dog House

A Geo-Thermal Home For Man's Best Friend

This dog house uses geothermal heating and cooling to keep your dog warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It is installed partially underground. The idea is that it will appeal to your dog's natural instinct to build secure dens while it takes advantages of the earth's natural insulation. According to the manufacturer, it will keep the dog house at comfortable temperature's regardless of the weather. It's made from 20% recyclable materials and has a lifetime warranty. "The patent pending design of this unique " 21st Century Eco-Friendly " underground dog house takes advantage of the Earth's own natural temperature control system. The indestructable shell is partially buried to create not only a natural den habitat preferred by dogs, but is also then cooled in the Summer and heated in the Winter naturally."

More? We'll post some photos at the end. Unfortunately I don't have time today to get to my other discovery - this phyto purification bathroom, which recycles and regenerates wastewater while you bathe amidst reeds, branches and lush greenery. It's pretty amazing - we'll come back to it. (Thanks to Nico for the find!)

Anyway, what did we learn?
  • Whale is delicious.
  • Geothermal power is making Iceland almost climate-neutral.
  • We have it here too, and even though it smells a little funny it's renewable and sustainable.
  • You can stuff your dog into a hole in the ground and then pump the hole full of geothermal heat and your dog will be warm and happy.
  • There are hot, ayran men taking showers right now because of it.
  • Everyplace should use 72 percent more sustainable geothermal if they can.
Questions or ideas? Hit the comments. Also go to Iceland.

(*) Oh - sadly because the economy is in such a state, Iceland is looking into some offshore drilling to generate revenue. Somewhere Sarah Palin is smiling, and also killing a moose. There are some environmental problems there - a friend scored this film about a very tragic dam project that drowned some beautiful Icelandic wilderness. You should watch the trailer. Then go visit and spend money so they don't have to drill for oil in the ocean ...

Note: This post originally appeared at, which the blogger co-edits.