Iceland is the answer to our prayers. The country has a surfeit of cheap electricity from volcanoes and melting glaciers that is either sold for a pittance, or goes to waste.
The Icelanders would dearly love to sell this power to us at global prices to pay down the banking debts of 2008. Britain would dearly love to buy it from them as our coal plants and ageing nuclear reactors are shut down, with little to replace them beyond the variable winds of the North Sea.
Advances in high voltage technology make it possible to transmit Iceland's low-carbon power to the industrial hubs of northern England by underwater cables with an energy leakage of just 5pc, and probably at lower costs per megawatt hour (MWh) than the nuclear power from Hinkley Point. And unlike nuclear, the electricity is 'dispatchable'.
“We can turn it on and off in fifteen minutes to half an hour. It is the only battery that is really available today for green energy,” said Hordur Arnarson, head of Iceland’s national utility Landsvirkjun.
It is hard to imagine a more elegant back-up for the UK's vast experiment in off-shore wind, the backbone of British electricity by the late 2020s.
Combined with interconnectors from Holland and France - and soon Norway - it could plug much of the intermittency gap through the dog days of a windless anticyclone. The power can flow both ways: surges in North Sea wind could be stored in Nordic reservoirs.
Roughly 70pc of Iceland's electricity comes from hydropower through glacial run-off. This is mostly sold to aluminium smelters for a derisory price. Water washes over the top of the dams for parts of the year because the island has no way of selling the excess energy.
Hydro could probably provide the UK with one gigawatt of stable baseload, but then there is the tantalising potential of geothermal power from the island's 350 volcanoes as well.
The advances in drilling are breath-taking. An Icelandic project backed by the US National Science Foundation is currently boring the deepest hole ever attempted into the fluids of the inner earth at Reykjanes on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. As of late December it had reached a depth of 4.626 kilometres, approaching temperatures of 500C.
The team aims to stop just short of the magma, at 200 times atmospheric pressure, where hot rock mixed with sea water releases ‘supercritical steam’ with enormous energy. This is the Holy Grail of geothermal power, if it can be extracted safely in a thermal mining cycle.
Drilling to just short of the magma – what could possibly go wrong? Hollywood has a new topic (Ice-hot?) for next summer’s splat film.
Seriously, it is another triumph for technological innovation that the capture and transmission of this energy is even considered feasible. It may be so but costs in the region of the appallingly expensive and outdated Hinkley Point nuclear project are hardly encouraging. If lower costs are worth considering, and they certainly should be, fracking for natural gas is a much better idea for the UK and many other countries over the next two decades.
As for solar power, we are now discovering that there is no limit to the methods, both large and small, for capturing this increasingly cost-competitive source of green power. This is particularly true in urban environments, where it is most need, and the rapid development of industrial batteries will continue to reduce problems of intermittency.
Here is a PDF of AEP’s article.Back to top