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A tale of two geothermal nations

/ 12:34 AM June 07, 2016

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND—The Icelanders are proud of their geothermal energy. When I visited the Hellisheiði Power Station, the third largest geothermal power station in the world, our guide boasted: “The average Icelandic household only pays $80 a month for water and electricity. We are so blessed!” He proceeded to show how the turbines are able to produce 180 megawatts and to power the entire city of Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital.

In the Philippines, such figures will surely be a source of envy. It is very expensive here in Iceland: Even just a bed in a youth hostel costs 8,000 krona (around P3,000) a night. But utilities are cheap, whereas in the Philippines even just a condominium unit can end up costing the $80 in electricity alone.

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Iceland is, of course, a very different place. Settled by Vikings in the ninth century, the island-country has a population of only 330,000—despite being larger than Mindanao. It is thus very easy for them to power themselves entirely by renewable energy. With a population over 300 times more, spread out in so many islands, powering the Philippines is a far greater challenge.

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Moreover, with Iceland bordering the Arctic Circle itself, it can get very cold here, and geothermal stations are useful not just for the electricity they generate but also for the hot

water, which is piped into cities and towns and is useful in keeping Icelanders warm in their houses, and comfortable in the heated swimming pools that are an important part of their social lives. “Without business suits or uniforms, everyone’s equal in the swimming pool,” explains Vanessa Loque, a Filipino migrant who I met in Studio 29, a hangout for the Filipino community here. Amazingly, there is even a beach heated by the excess hot water—and thermal greenhouses where they grow bananas!

In the Philippines, on the other hand, it is cooling, not heating, that we need. We do love hot springs (which is why Pansol in Calamba is such a traffic hotspot), but we are more wont to seek the air-conditioned sanctuaries of our cars and shopping malls—and whenever there is an opportunity, the cool climate of Baguio or the breeziness of Tagaytay.

With a tundra biome covering much of its terrain, Iceland also does not have the lush and biodiverse tropical forests in the Philippines, which also happen to be the locations of actual or potential sources of geothermal energy such as Mount Apo in Southern Mindanao and Cagua Volcano in Cagayan. Thus, there is much less debate on environment impacts: I suppose it’s much easier to bulldoze lava fields than cut trees to make way for geothermal stations.

These differences notwithstanding, we have a lot of similarities with Iceland, not least of which is the presence of volcanoes—for both countries, both a blessing and curse. Just as Mount Pinatubo devastated Central Luzon in 1991, volcanic eruptions have ravaged Iceland throughout its history. Famously, an eruption in 2006 spewed ash all over Europe, canceling flights.

But Icelanders have a great respect for their volcanoes, and the Icelandair Boeing 757 I took to get here was even named after Hekla—their most active volcano once thought to be the “Gateway to Hell.” And of course they have turned volcanoes into blessings by harnessing their energy for the people. In the Philippines, too, volcanic eruptions have made soil fertile in various areas, and we are actually the second largest geothermal energy producer in the world.

The example of Iceland should inspire us to pursue clean energy further—if not for its intrinsic benefits and the “clean living” consciousness it engenders, then for its relative harmlessness compared to fossil fuels. While coal plants have been shown to increase rates of cancer and heart and lung problems— among many other health hazards—geothermal energy is generally harmless to human health. While coal plants account for a third of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, geothermal stations emit just 5 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by a coal-fired plant of equal size.

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And this brings me to an important lesson: We must evaluate sources of energy, not in absolute terms, but in relation to other sources of energy. While a larger rethink of our energy demands is in order, we must deal with the inevitable need to generate power and act on the power crisis that is at hand. With low oil prices in the global market, fossil-fuel-based energy is the easy way out—but we have to consider its long-term consequences. If we are to be a leader in showing the world how to make a stand against climate change, if we are to make a country a cleaner place, we must let go of our dependence on fossil fuels—just as Iceland, once an importer of coal and oil, did many decades ago. Only a few countries are blessed with such a choice.

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As we left the power station, the barren landscape of moss-covered lava fields and snowy mountains greeted me: a reminder that it is much easier to build a geothermal station where there are no trees, and where there are no people. Whenever I think of Mount Talinis and its beautiful forests, I am mindful that the activists there have legitimate concerns that companies like Energy Development Corp. must take into account when they pursue new projects and expansions.

Even so, in light of the Philippines’ growing energy demands and faced with the far-worse option of resorting to fossil fuels, I think we should keep giving geothermal energy a chance.

 

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.

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TAGS: Commentary, Energy, geothermal, geothermal energy, Iceland, opinion
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