All Steamed Up

3 minute read
Bryan Walsh

Xianyang, China, was once a great place to live–during the Qin dynasty, anyway, more than 2,000 years ago. Since then, it has gone pretty much downhill. Today Xianyang is one of the most polluted cities in a very polluted country, partly as a result of the air-fouling coal that’s burned to generate much of its power. The air in Reykjavík, by contrast, is crystal clear, because nothing is burned there. Iceland’s capital gets 100% of its heat and 40% of its electricity from geothermal power. (The rest comes from hydropower.) The same forces that have scattered no fewer than 130 volcanoes across the tiny country bring molten rock relatively close to the surface everywhere. When this encounters underground water, it generates steam, which is tapped to produce clean, renewable electricity.

All of which explains why a group of engineers from the Icelandic power company Enex have left the pure air of Reykjavík behind to work in smoggy Xianyang. The ancient Chinese city might just have the geothermal resources to become the Reykjavík of the East. In December engineers from both countries completed the first stage of a joint venture that could eventually provide geothermal-powered heating to millions of people in Xianyang. If the project is successful, the city will eventually have the biggest such system in the world.

That would be good for everyone. Last year alone, China added 102 gigawatts to its electrical grid–roughly twice the total capacity of California’s–and about 90% of that came from carbon-belching coal plants. Geothermal energy can at least make a start on cleaning up this mess. The China Energy Research Society expects 110 gigawatt hours (GWh) to be produced through geothermal power nationally by 2010, out of 2.7 million GWh in total. That’s a tiny slice, but energy experts believe China has the potential to do much more. “There are geothermal resources in almost every province in China,” says Ingvar Fridleifsson, director of the United Nations University Geothermal Training Program in Reykjavík. Geothermal pumps will even be used to heat and cool some of the venues at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

It’s the Chinese government that has committed the country to tapping its geothermal potential. But as is often the case, it’s newly entrepreneurial citizens who are making things happen. One Chinese student who studied geothermal technology in Reykjavík went home to transform what had been a peasant village into a model geothermal development, with housing, pools and a recreation park all heated geothermally. “People can say a lot of things about the Chinese government,” says Hans Bragi Bernhardsson, head of China operations for Enex. “But if they decide to do something, they achieve it.” In this case, let’s hope so.

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