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In Iceland, Green Energy Has Become an Attraction All Its Own


It’s little-known that the site’s milky pools are somewhat man-made—a byproduct of the neighboring Svartsengi geothermal power plant, where in the early 1980s local bathers first discovered the apparent healing properties of the silica-and algae-rich runoff that pooled in a reservoir beside the facility. The site tends to “invite curiosity” about geothermal energy, says Fannar Jonsson, the Blue Lagoon’s quality and environment manager, and the attraction provides interested guests with information both online and on-site about the neighboring geothermal facilities that power it.

“We went to the Blue Lagoon on the first day, and then we went to a local geothermal pool every other day,” says Stockley. The experience was “a highlight of the trip,” she says, and sparked her interest in Iceland’s energy landscape—and in returning to visit lesser-expected sites like Hellisheiði Power Plant.

The plant, which opened in 2006, is about a 25-minute drive southeast of Reykjavik, abutting the moss-slicked slopes of the active Hengill volcano. In this geologically turbulent region, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, heat generated from underground volcanic activity affords an immense wellspring of energy. Geothermal plants like Hellisheiði are designed to tap it by drilling deep into the Earth’s surface. Underground steam and hot water then generate heat through an extensive network of pipelines, or are converted to electricity using steam turbines. 

You can learn all about this process from the multimedia and interactive installations at the plant’s Geothermal Exhibition, part of the visitor center that was integrated into its initial design. That’s because there was an expectation, according to exhibition manager Laufey Guomundsdottir, that “there would be great interest in being able to see and visit the power plant” from curious visitors, who’d want to “feel and see the power of Mother Nature.” When the plant debuted the exhibit in 2007, it was the first geothermal plant in the world to feature such a display, she says.

The prediction proved accurate: Before the pandemic, the plant pulled in 100,000 visitors each year, a figure to which it is slowly returning. Academics, scientists, business leaders, and policy-makers from around the globe have taken notice, too. On the day I visit, the staff at Hellisheiði is preparing for a delegation of Baltic states’ presidents to arrive. Like me, they’ll peer through the interior windows onto the power plant’s inner mechanisms, where massive turbines roar and churn, and view the display of Icelandic rocks and minerals, some of which were until recently particles of carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere. 

I could have kept my family’s power plant tour going at several other sites, each of which debuted their own visitors centers in the 2010s: at the Krafla geothermal power station in northern Iceland, or the Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant in the eastern highlands, or even the Ljósafoss hydropower station, set along the River Sog, less than 30 miles from Hellisheiði. But instead we continued on to Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal spa facility situated along the lakefront in Laugarvatn—where we stopped at the café and discovered that geothermal energy could figure into a menu, too.

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