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Unsubstantiated Claims Draw Response from Reykjavik Energy

News can travel quickly, even when it covers only one side of a story. An article published on May 26 by ipsnews.net claimed damage has been caused by the Hellisheidi geothermal plant in Iceland to the surrounding area over the past three years. But the article largely quoted anonymous sources, and the plant's operators have confirmed that they were never contacted to comment on the claims.

Unfortunately, the IPS story was also re-run by several other news sources the following day. Apparently, none of these news sources contacted the plant’s operators asking for comments on the claims before republishing the article.

A day later the company replied. In a memorandum to the National Energy Authority, Reykjavik Energy representatives responded to each of the reporter’s statements. “In a serious way, Reykjavik Energy’s operations are slandered by [sources] unattributed, unsubstantiated and, on several occasions, not in compliance with scientific findings,” wrote Dr. Einar Gunnlaugsson, Reykjavik Energy Head of Research, and Eiríkur Hjálmarsson, Chief Press Officer.

Hellisheidi geothermal plant was visited in August 2008 by geothermal experts from the U.S., Australia, and Iceland who were associated with the kick-off event for the International Partnership for Geothermal Technology. "It was a very impressive and attractive facility which was well designed for public access and education," said Karl Gawell, GEA's Executive Director. "If there were any problems as the article alleges, they were not apparent to the numerous experts who toured the facility, and Reykjavik Energy was clearly not trying to hide anything."

The IPS article attributes the accusations to increased levels of hydrogen sulfide (H²S) emissions from the Hellisheidi plant. “The story correctly states that the highest 24-hour level measured in Reykjavik was 150 microgram per cubic meter,” Gunnlaugsson and Hjálmarsson stated. According to the article this threshold has been exceeded once. “As correctly stated in the article, the peaks measured in Reykjavik present no health problems to inhabitants,” they stated in their reply. In the U.S., H²S is routinely abated at geothermal power plants, resulting in the conversion of over 99.9% of the H²S from geothermal incondensable gases into elemental sulfur, which can then be used as a nonhazardous soil amendment and fertilizer feedstock. (See A Guide to Geothermal Energy and the Environment, GEA, April 2007.).

One claim made in the article was that geothermal production caused black soot to appear on the silverware of Reykjavik residents. Gunnlaugsson and Hjálmarsson noted that geothermal water is conducted to residential water taps, but, “The connection made in the article between increased airborne H²S and the need for more frequent silver polishing is unsubstantiated and highly speculative,” they wrote.

Damaged rubber in the suspension and steering systems of area trucks was also attributed to geothermal production in the article. “This is the first time Reykjavik Energy hears of this complaint,” the company’s representatives noted.

Moss vegetation was damaged in several places, according to the article. But Reykjavik Energy studies showed damage to moss was similar to effects from weather observed in the control area 10 km away from the plant, where sulfur levels had not increased. Although increased levels were found within half a mile of the plant, in fact, Iceland’s soil is naturally low in sulfur and an increase could have a fertilizing effect. “The reporter’s statement on this issue is exaggerated and not in compliance with the aforementioned findings,” wrote Gunnlaugsson and Hjálmarsson.

In addition, the article raises questions about whether geothermal energy is renewable. Quoting a professor of geochemistry, it asserts that "geothermal energy is not a renewable energy resource in the sense that the heat source is not replenished at a rate equal to or higher than it is extracted.”

"This is rather like saying solar is not renewable because erecting a solar collector cools the ground underneath it," commented Karl Gawell, GEA's Executive Director. "You have to look at the bigger picture, and the heat flowing from the earth is immense. Utilizing the heat radiating from the center of the earth for energy production is using a renewable resource in any reasonable sense of the term."

Daniel Jennejohn, GEA's Research Associate, notes: "Geothermal energy is derived from heat found deep in the earth’s core. This heat is brought to the surface by thermal conduction and by the upwards intrusion of magma from great depths. Current estimates of the total geothermal heat flux coming from the mantle put it at 44 terawatts; the geothermal industry currently uses just 0.01 terawatt. Given the large amount of energy being supplied from the Earth’s core, it is difficult to imagine geothermal energy as a non-renewable resource, especially considering the fact that the Earth’s mantle is expected to continue to provide heat to the surface for billions of years. Even if a single geothermal reservoir cools down it has little or no impact on the overall heat flow from the original energy source: the Earth’s mantle."

"If the rate of extraction of the geothermal fluid exceeds the rate of recharge, a geothermal reservoir may see a decrease in reservoir pressure and temperature," Jennejohn added. "However, upon cessation of geothermal operations the reservoir will recover towards its original temperature and pressure."

Details on the Hellisheidi plant and environmental impact are available here.

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