Geothermal power offers energy option

Updated: 2012-04-22 07:53

By Diao Ying in Reykjavik (China Daily)

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Iceland, the volcanic island, proudly describes itself as a cold country warming itself without burning coal. As it says on a sign outside of Reykjavik airport: Why use coal if there is heat from the earth?

The country heats 90 percent of the houses and buildings of its 320,000 people using hot water. That is why Premier Wen Jiabao, who studied geology in university himself, chose to visit the Hellisheidi geothermal plant on Saturday before wrapping up his brief visit to the country.

The plant, 25 kilometers southwest of the capital Reykjavik, sits in Hengill, a mountain situated on an active volcanic ridge. It is the country's largest geothermal plant and the second largest in the world, producing 330 megawatts of electricity and 130 megawatts of thermal energy every year. A major part of its function is to generate hot water to heat the houses and buildings in the capital.

As China seeks to transform its economy with cleaner, more environmentally friendly fuels, it is looking at the experience of Iceland, which relies almost entirely on clean energy for domestic and industrial use. Iceland generates a quarter of its electricity from geothermal and the rest from hydropower, according to its national energy authority. China, on the other hand, generates most of its energy from burning coal.

The island has a lot of expertise and knowledge to offer. In his visit to the plant, Wen also met students from the United Nations University Geothermal Program in Reykjavik, which was set up under the cooperation of the energy authority of Iceland and the UN to train students and scientists from developing countries. More than 70 Chinese have studied in the university and brought their expertise back home, including Pang Zhonghe, head of the laboratory for geothermal studies at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The Chinese demand for cleaner energy also provides opportunities for Icelandic firms in this sector. For instance, Orka Energy Ltd, Iceland's main utility company and producer of geothermal energy, has set up plants in Shaanxi province with Sinopec Group, China's second largest oil company. The joint venture aims to develop geothermal energy and reduce the use of coal in house heating and electricity in China, according to previous press releases by the office of the president of Iceland.

The two countries are also looking at geothermal cooperation in other resource-rich regions in China, including Hebei and Yunnan provinces and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.