The Renewable Energy Behind Iceland’s Data Centre Bid: In Pictures


Its reliable sources of renewable energy make Iceland an ideal site for Cloud-based data centres. This month, TechWeekEurope visited the Arctic Circle to investigate the northern seat of sustainable power

Iceland’s bid to be a data hub is all about energy. It generates surplus electricity from renewable sources, allowing its utilities to offer very competitive prices. Geothermal and hydroelectric power provide a steady baseload, giving data centres guaranteed power, and long-term pricing agreements.

TechWeekEurope‘s visit to Iceland included two sustainable power plants, shown here in pictures.

Irafoss hydroelectric station

Iceland has used hydroelectricity for many years, and the state power utility, Landsvirkjun, apologised for taking us round one of the oldest – Irafoss on the Sog river. This has been operating continously since 1953, and generates 45MW of power.

The visit took us 38 metres underground, where the river water flows through a channel. Two 1953 Westinghouse turbines were joined by an ASEA unit in 1963, and together they are powered by a flow of 107 cubic metres of water per second.

After 60 years’ operation, the site displays its reliability through details such as the massive overhead crane – unused since the turbines were installed.

Hellisheiði geothermal plant

The Hellisheiði geothermal station produces 303MW of electricity, and also 133MW of heat energy, in the form of water at 82°C, which provides for heating and hot water in for around 80,000 people – at least a third of Reykjavik , which is 30km away (including the showers in our hotel).

When it reaches its full capacity output of 350MW electricity and 400MW hot water, it will be the largest geothermal generating station in the world. It is operated by the Reykjavik geothermal company, Orkuveita Reykhjavikur.

A borehole, three kilometres deep, releases steam at 300°C, which is used to drive turbines and heat pure water from a shallower borehole. The process involves multiple condensers and produces hot water at 82°C which is piped to Reykjavik. The borehole water is returned to the ground.

Iceland’s data centre bid

Landsvirkjun CEO, Hörður ArnarsonLandsvirkjun’s CEO, Hörður Arnarson (pictured) explained Iceland’s bid to house sustainable cloud data centres. Although its annual production of electricity is small compared with other countries, Iceland has a large surplus compared with its population, and the country houses energy-hungry industries such as aluminium smelting works as a way to export that energy.

Iceland produces 17TWh of electricity each year (slide 13), which is small compared with most other countries, and a tiny fraction of Europe’s total needs of 637 TWh. However, it is in the top ten of renewable electricity producers and, when its tiny 320,000 population is factored in, is way ahead in per-capita generation making 54MWh of electricity each year for every person in Iceland.

Some of this electricity could be transferred to European countries. A connector has been proposed (slide 14), however, this would be massively expensive. Instead, Iceland hopes to use at least some of the excess power to drive data centres (slide 15).

Demand for data centres in the European Union has grown from 38TWh per year in 2006 to 77TWh in 2011, and is expected to reach 153TWh in 2020.  Iceland hopes to provide at least one percent of this – about 1.5TWh, or roughly a tenth of today’s power generation in Iceland.

Is that feasible? Yes – assuming organisations can be persuaded to trust their processing to Icelandic data centres.

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