Svetlana is a writer and brand strategist. Her favorite activity in Iceland is to head out of her adopted hometown of Reykjavik into the countryside to observe the magic of the Northern Lights.
“Geothermal energy is part of our daily life,” said Diddi, our Arctic Adventures driver with a pole vaulter tattoo, as he expertly steered our 18-seater van across the Hellisheidi lava plateau east of Reykavík. “You can smell sulfur when you shower.”
Split between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates moving across a hot spot, Iceland is expanding by 2 cm (0.8inches) every year. It has 32 active volcanoes with magma constantly pushing and lifting the ground.
Volcanic activity is the foundation of renewable energy in Iceland, and its many glaciers are the reason why Iceland has renewable electricity to heat swimming pools, green houses, and its homes.
By now, we were smelling sulfur in the tour van, too. We turned off the main road towards the billowing clouds of steam coming from the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, our first official stop on the tour.
Arctic Adventures guide Diddi was driving to Hellisheidi geothermal power plant and telling stories
Sat in a relatively young 1,000-year-old lava field, the spear of the Orka Natturunnar reception, which translates from the Icelandic “Nature’s Energy”, rose like a glacier above the tectonic plates, which happen to be the source of the energy that powers the plant. The plant is in a high-temperature area; there is an active volcano behind it (it’s not spewing lava, thankfully).
Hellisheidi geothermal power plant in Iceland
Inside, it houses an insightful exhibition about geothermal technology with a special room dedicated to the technology that sucks carbon emissions from the air and shoots into the ground, where it turns into rock. We couldn’t resist grabbing a magnifying glass in a kids’ lab to explore the lava rocks. A special highlight was peering over the machinery and stepping onto the observation deck from where rows of hot water pipes were clearly visible on the mountainside.
We couldn’t resist grabbing a magnifying glass in a kids’ lab to explore the lava rocks
The water in these pipes heats the homes, greenhouses, and swimming pools. For most people in Iceland, access to hot pools is a basic need, Diddi informed us. Everywhere you go in Iceland, you will find a municipal pool. Just follow the sign for a sundlaug. Most are geothermally heated, with outdoor spaces for swimming or soaking in a hot tub. They are communal spaces where you come to meet your friends, where you rest after a stressful day, where your baby, barely a few months old, takes her first swimming lessons.
Hot water pipes heats the homes, greenhouses, and swimming pools
In fact, you could say they kept Icelanders alive throughout the centuries. Take Snorralaug, a small hot spring pool in the village of Reykholt in western Iceland, is thought to have been used by locals as early as the 12th century. One can imagine them soaking in hot water, talking about this and that, much like the Icelanders do today. Snorralaug was first mentioned in the writings of Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), poet, historian, and chieftain who used the pool and had a private tunnel that connected his house to it.
Over 70% of Iceland’s electricity comes from hydropower with the remaining 30% produced from geothermal power.
- Svetlana Graudt
At the Ljósafossvirkjun Power Station
Thinking about hitting the pool after the tour, we rolled merrily to the Ljosafoss Hydropower Station. Diddi was serving us quirky Iceland facts and hard truths about global warming causing glaciers, sources of fresh water, to melt at an alarmingly fast rate.
A brief 30 minute ride, and we are at the Ljósafossvirkjun, a hydroelectric power station, which harnesses the water of the river Sog to produce electricity. In fact, the primary source of hydropower is the meltwater rivers flowing off massive glaciers. This was just one of the fun facts we learned during a self-guided tour inside this functionalist-style gem designed by the prolific Icelandic architect Sigurdur Gudmundsson and built in 1937.
Ljosafoss Hydropower Station in Iceland
The power station’s idyllic setting between the river and a golf course induced a feeling of tranquility and calm. The leaves on mature trees swayed in a summer breeze. A loud oystercatcher made high-pitched calls on top of a street light. We peered through the glass into a practically unchanged genuine turbine hall. A small interactive exhibition invited you to twirl, push, and pump handles to produce energy and push the water on the turbines producing electricity.
We peered through the glass into a practically unchanged genuine turbine hall
There we learn that the first hydropower station in Iceland was built in 1904. By 1937, electricity from hydropower replaced imported coal for cooking needs in Reykjavik. In the 1960s, fossil fuels were phased out for clean electricity. And today, 100% of electricity in Iceland is produced with renewable sources of energy. This is an impressive achievement to consider the next time you charge your phone in your Reykjavik hotel room!
The time is 11 a.m., and we’re getting hungry for our next stop, the Solheimar ecovillage, the first sustainable community in Iceland and a definite highlight of the tour for me.
Solheimar is famous for three things: its sustainable ethos, its creative community of disabled and able bodied residents, and its organic vegetable production. The origins of Solheimar date back to the 1930 when Sesselja Hreindís Sigmundsdóttir, who grew up in a nearby farm and at one point was employed as a caterer by the high Danish society in Reykjavik, bought the current site for the children with disabilities. She was the first in Iceland to create an opportunity for the disabled to express themselves through meaningful work. Serving organically grown food using the area’s geothermal energy was another ingredient in her holistic ethos and worldview. We learned this from a slide lecture by Laurus, who’s been working and living at Solheimar since the 1980s.
Solheimar ecovillage, the first sustainable community in Iceland
Today, around 100 people live in the village, including 44 disabled residents. They are employed in various jobs: in wood and ceramic workshops, cutting grass, growing 600,000 aspens in the forestry, and running two guest houses.
The church bell rang. It was time to have lunch.
Residents and guests mixed in a spacious food hall. Workers piled in alongside residents, sitting on chairs each leg encased in a tennis ball. Adjacent to the dining area is a tuck shop selling locally grown tomatoes, vegetables, and eggs, and an exhibition selling the artworks of Solheimar residents, and some are very sought after among the collectors.
I tucked into a piece of roast chicken, served with coleslaw, french fries and green salad. I filled a cup with coffee and tried it with homemade wedding bliss cake and cream. I felt like I never wanted to leave.
Lunch at Sólheimar Eco Village
After lunch, an employee in a motor scooter with a post delivery box in the back whizzed past. He opened the flea market shop and minutes later carefully packaged some drinking glasses I’d picked up as souvenirs in a red plastic bag. Clutching it close to my chest, I race to catch up with the others as it was time to go to the Golden Circle, a 180-mile ring route that encapsulates three world famous sites: the Gulfoss waterfall, the Strokkur geyser at Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park, the birthplace of the Icelandic nation and, incidentally, the home to Silfra, probably the best and the easiest way to snorkel between the tectonic plates.
And, finally, the world-famous Golden Circle
At the windy Gullfoss, the sun came out for a moment, and a brilliant rainbow appeared as we scrambled to get photos. Next stop was the geothermal Geysir area that gave exploding water features all around the world its name (albeit with a slightly modified spelling), followed by a leisurely stop at the Thingvellir National Park. There, we walked up a gentle slope to the viewing platform in the middle of a trans-Atlantic rift, and peered into the blue of Lake Thingvellir and Silfra fissure in bright evening sunshine.
At the visitor center, Diddi retraced our route with his finger. As we waited for the rest of the group to join us, Diddi pulled up his sleeve: “I got this tattoo two weeks ago.” A former chef and, as I later learned, an Icelandic pole vault athlete.
A tattoo of Arctic Adventures guide Diddi
Check out the best moments from Golden Circle & Geothermal Energy tour: