Conversation: Norðurorka

Today I met with Ari, an engineer at Nordurorka (it means “Northern Power”), to learn more about Akureyri’s hot water system. This means it is dealing with water from low temperature fields, a different system than at the power plants where electricity and hot water are co-generated. Their office sits at the top of the town, where they can see up to the mountainside from where their fresh cold water flows. Their headquarters is a narrow cylinder with a light well at the center.  Ari showed me the real time graphical interface that shows information about each borehole: pressure in pipe, temperature of water, current rate of flow of water, and more.

Moss wall in central atrium at Norðurorka headquarters

Q: What services does Norðurorka supply, and to where?
A: Norðurorka supplies electricity, and hot and cold water to Akureyri. They also provide water, (sometimes hot and cold, sometimes just hot) to several other towns in Northern Iceland. In several cases, they pipe hot water many kilometers to reach relatively small towns.  The map below shows the areas where they supply hot water:

(Pending: system map here)

Q: What are the costs associated with geothermal hot water for the distribution systems? How does it compare to costs in Reykjavik?
A: In 1986 the cost of hot water was 3 times what it was in the larger and (relatively) more compact city of Reykjavik. Still, it cost them maybe a third of what it would to use imported oil.
Today, hot water costs about 90 kronur per cubic meter in Akureryi, while prices in Reykjavik have risen and are now about 80 kronur, The reason for this rise in prices emphasizes that social and political factors matter just as much, if not more than the availability of natural resources. Ari mentioned something about Reykjavik energy investing in other areas such as fishing. Later, I read an article in the Grapevine (Iceland’s bi-weekly English language paper) that explained this. LINK (pending).
Anyways, back to the Norðurorka. They began supplying hot water in 1977, cold water in 1993, and electricity in 2000. The cold water, as I mentioned, is from just uphill. The majority of the hot water comes from 20 kilometers away at Hjelteyri. They have 10 boreholes in total. Typical boreholes go 230 meters down and include a pump. They have one special borehole in an area where the groundwater is deeper that goes down to 390 meters, and another that actually draws water up at 104 degrees celcius (above boiling.  This supplies for all of the hot water demand. In 2003, there were 3 very cold weeks in February where they were utilizing all of their pumps as well as a back up 12 MW oil boiler. This was extremely expensive, and led to the driliing of 2 additional wells for the following year.

Q: What system brings the water to buildings? What happens after the water is used to heat the homes?
The hot water pipes run under the sidewalks. The predominant method for space heating is radiators that run along the wall and under windows.
They re-inject only about 10% of the water to the hot water areas. Another 40% goes back through the cycle as they use it to mix with the hot water that is pumped up (this brings it down to a temperature that is usable for domestic spaces). The other half of the water goes into the sewage system, as the same hot water for heating is used for showering and hot water.

Q: Are there currently challenges that Norðurorka is currently facing? Or that they forsee arising in the near future?
No, things are running smoothly.


Geothermal Power and Heating: Reykjalið and Krafla

Lake Myvatn is located in northern Iceland near the Krafla volcanic area. I stayed in the small town of Reykjalið located along the lake shore and 5 kilometers from the Krafla area. There was an eruption in 1974, and today there are areas where the black lava fields are still smoking. The landscape changes abruptly on the drive from Reykjalið to the Krafla area: grasses and small trees, sandy dark tephra rings, cracking golden dirt and bubbling muds, mossy lava fields, dark black fields. The varied surfaces reflect a young earth that is still in the constant process of destruction and renewal.

It is a prime location for tapping into high temperature geothermal areas. I visited Krafla power plant to see how this relatively remote area powers the country.

This power plant, built during the 1970s, was almost abandoned after a volcanic eruption lowered the potential of the wells. Iceland has a unified grid, so while some of the power from this plant does go directly to northeast Iceland, some contributes to the shared power supplies. Interestingly, part of the development was always intended to go to power the Alcoa smelting plant further to the East.

From the window of my guesthouse I could see two plumes of smoke. If you see the plume, that actually means they are not using that borehole. If they were, the stream would be going through the pipes. The plume on the left is from a small scale geothermal plant, the one on the right is from an old diatomite plant (you can read more about it in THIS POST).

One element to the geothermal system that I was unaware  of is localized district heating system for Reykjalið, the small settlement of only 300 people (and a number of travelers).  About 3/4 of a mile from the edge last street of small houses, there is a small heating and power plant called Bjarnarflag, which has a capacity of 3 MW and supplies hot water to the small settlement. This process leaves it’s own “blue lagoon” of waste water. Apparently as soon as the new Myvatn Naturebaths opened, signs were put up saying it is too hot to safely swim- locals still swim there.  Water, electricity, and hot water all run under the street and any new buildings tie into it. More about Reykjalid.

Myvatn Naturebath

There are over 130 heating swimming pools in Iceland, and stories of bathing in naturally heated water goes back to the 13th century.  But the nature bathing complex tourist destination, tapping into the image of Iceland as this destination for “sustainable wellness” is a newer development.  I visited the Myvatn baths, which stands as an interesting comparison to the Blue Lagoon.

The complex is modeled after the success of the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon (heated, sulfurous swimming pool) itself still has the same quality, and there is a view over Myvatn lake.

However the architectural design is not executed in such a well developed manner.  Many of similar ideas come into play: use of local rock materials as walls, clean modern interior spaces, linear bands of program types that line the lagoon. But here it is not done in such an artful way.  The rock gabion walls here appear to provide thermal mass and texture, but are added to a typical wall construction without an attempt at synthesis.  The interiors have clean, simple materials, but are lacking the elements that create a thickness, tactility, or variation of light quality to the interior space. The cost here is about half of the cost at the Blue Lagoon. The much more remote location is likely the significant factor of difference, as well as the design quality of the facility.


Geothermal, Materiality + Integration: The Blue Lagoon

My first stop in Iceland was the Blue Lagoon, a manmade geothermal bath. It is located close to the airport and welcome relief after an overnight flight (made uncomfortably lengthy due to a 3.5 hr delay at JFK- thanks Delta).  As a popular tourist attraction along the well-beaten path, I am surely not the first person to observe it from architectural perspective. But it is a simple, strong example of the very different image of renewable energies, and an architectural space that responds to and integrates with the landscape through section and materiality.

The images of disasters associated with energy production are familiar: the smog of coal burning, the oil slicks of gasoline production gone awry. Here too, they thought they had an environmental disaster at hand after drilling geothermal wells for the Svartsengi power plant led to water pouring out into the landscape.  The minerals coming up calcified on the lava rocks creating a watertight pool that heated water filled.  After people began bathing in the pools, and especially as people with skin diseases noted its healing effects, the idea for the Blue Lagoon as a tourist destination and health clinic was born. The mix of heat and minerals in the water creates an environment unfavorable for bacteria, so chlorine is not needed.

The international airport is located in Keflavik, about an hour from Reykjavik out on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Keflavik is home to the former US military base, which is now occupied partially by NATO and partially by a university. The landscape en route to the Blue Lagoon is a windswept lavafield. It is a stark first image of the foreign landscape.

The building that welcomes visitors is unassuming on approach. From the parking lot, visitors walk over a simple path of dark pavers through a canyon of lava rocks that opens to the entry door and view over a cyan-blue pool to the left. The airy lobby, cafeteria, shops, and desk make up the band of programmed space runs adjacent to the edge of the lagoon, with service spaces and parking to the outside. Another part of the building branches off and houses the locker rooms. Entry, locker access, and purchases while inside are all coordinated through a wristband, and extra costs can be paid on the way out.

Pool and view of power plant to the left of the entrance.

Cafeteria in Blue Lagoon. But does the nice open space warrant overpriced sandwiches?

Materiality is brought into the space in several ways- the exterior lava formations literally continue into the space of the restaurant.  A wall of stacked lava bricks runs continuously through, creating a divide between the large main spaces and the areas of circulation to viewing decks and service areas.  Even the materiality of the roof shows the thought of integrating into the surrounding context.

Other spaces are created with clean, contemporary materials: site cast concrete walls, perforated metal mesh ceilings, and hardwood floors. Thin wood elements reoccur in several different roles: a ceiling material in the main space, as space dividers along circulation, and as louvers to protect from strong sun angles on the exterior.

The use of sectional relation with the ground both integrates it into the landscape and creates drama. The band of program terminates into the walls of lava at each end, and steam baths and saunas are embedded directly into the hillside. Sitting in the restaurant brings you into confrontation directly with the landscape, while still allowing light to come though. Being lower than the surrounding plains creates a sense of protection in the pool and protects from the strong winds.  Also, the climb up to viewing platforms on the roof becomes a revealing of the expansive vista of sharp brown rocks.

"Lava wall" in the restaurant. Outside the windows a light well allows light and a view of the rock wall.

Textured wall that runs continuously through spaces.

Roof and landscape beyond.

Left: Hallway to viewing platforms. Right: Wooden screens on facade.

I read that today the lagoon has 2 of it’s own wells and no longer draws water directly from the nearby power plant.  And while bathing is definite staple of Icelandic culture, the 30 euro price tag and location near the airport means the visitors are largely foreign.  The Blue Lagoon projects the image of Iceland, while perhaps not feeling authentic.

Since there are many places to swim in heated pools in Iceland, the success of the blue lagoon (with such high entry fees) is certainly owned in large part to the design of the complex. It is an example of how architecture helped create great value (here- out of something that was initially perceived as a natural disaster). This model for a tourist destination has been replicated once in Myvatn, with another just opening this summer near the Golden Circle (a main tourist route outside of Reykjavik). Despite the hype or high level of tourism, the complex suggests a number of useful strategies for integration into the landscape, at a spatial, material and cultural.

Sites: Geothermal Wells at the Center for Architecture

Two brands of innovation at the center for architecture.

In an inconspicuous room off of the galleries on at the AIA Center for Architecture on La Guardia street, the mechanical room might not appear innovative at first glance.  But, as the information panels in a small display explain to visitors, the room houses part of the geothermal system that helps cool and heat the building.

This system is very different from what is used in Iceland. Here the ground is used as a heat regulator rather than as a source of very hot water.

The ceiling of the mechanical room, where they drilled through the sidewalk and down into the ground.

There are two wells that both run 1,260 ft into the ground.  The pipes draw water up through a heat exhanger, and then release the water back into the ground. The heat exchanger takes heat out of the water or puts excess heat into it, which moderates the temperature of a water loop that runs through the gallery spaces. 

There is no back up system that taps into the grid, should the system have any problems. I visited on a hot, incredibly humid day and it was comfortable in the gallery spaces.

The system  shows a bit of wear- it was installed in 2003.  But also, it is quite quiet. You can hear the quiet trickle of water flowing in the tube.

The initial cost was $100,000 partially subsidized by a grant from NYSERDA, and  their payback period was only 3 years. Compared with many alternative energy scenarios, that is a short payback period. The fact that much of the gallery space is below ground level must mean their heating and cooling demands are already lower than above grade spaces, and furthermore the costs were subsized.  But still, it makes you wonder if this strategy is economically feasible for many more buildings than you might expect, or if this a just a unique case…*

Explanatory diagram of geothermal well locations.

* After speaking with a mechanical engineer knowledgeable about these systems, I learned a number of things to consider on this point.  The payback period depends on which system you compare it to – on a typical project, you might expect a 3yr payback in comparison to an inefficient alternative, but normally not when compared to normal best practice systems used today. The most commonly quoted payback period for geothermal heat exchange systems in the US is 10-15 years. It’s also important to consider the energy used to run the heat exchanger, as well as for the installation of the wells.

Mapping Energy: Geothermal and Hydroelectric Maps

Locations of Geothermal wells.  Source found here in the slideshow link at the bottom:,_Iceland,_Workshop4/other_contributions/32-thorhallsson.html

Environmental impact of geothermal and hydroelectric energy.  Map source: