Exploring the potential of geothermal energy

Nesjavellir Power Plant
Nesjavellir geothermal power plant provides electricity, hot water, and space heating to the Reykjavík area. Photo by Gretar Ívarsson. 

A recent roundtable discussion drilled deep into the promise of geothermal energy at a time when Cornell is considering a groundbreaking project of its own.

“The Potential of Geothermal Energy: Lessons from Iceland” featured a keynote address by Thorleikur Johannesson, an engineer with more than 20 years of experience designing and operating geothermal facilities in Iceland, where underground heat generates more than one-fourth of all electricity and provides nearly 90 percent of the heat for buildings and houses.

The roundtable took place on October 17 from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. in 255 Olin Hall. It was the latest in a series of events organized by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies on the future of renewable energy.

It was co-organized by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and co-sponsored by the Cornell Energy Institute. 

Johannesson was joined on the panel by Kyu-Jung Whang, Cornell’s vice president for infrastructure, properties,and planning, and Edwin A. (Todd) Cowen, professor of civil and environmental engineering. The moderator was Jefferson W. Tester, Croll Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and director of the Cornell Energy Institute.

The discussion was not just an academic exercise. Inspired in large part by Iceland’s example, Whang, Cowen, Tester, and others at Cornell are now looking into the feasibility of using geothermal energy to generate electricity and heat the buildings on the university’s Ithaca campus. It would be the first project of its kind in the United States.

In November 2014, the Einaudi Center, the Atkinson Center, and the Cornell Energy Institute co-hosted the then-president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who spoke on the benefits of a clean energy economy. You can see a video of his talk and read an article from the Cornell Chronicle here

About the participants

Thorleikur Johanesson
Thorleikur Johannesson

Thorleikur Johannesson is an expert in geothermal power projects, including wells, steam field systems, power plants, cooling systems, reinjection systems, and electrical connections. He is also a specialist in low temperature geothermal energy, and has years of experience in the design of district heating systems.

Kyu-Jung Whang is a member of the Cornell president’s cabinet and serves as the senior staff contact for the Buildings and Properties Committee of the Cornell Board of Trustees. He is a licensed architect and professional planner who is active in the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB).

Todd Cowen is faculty director for energy at the Atkinson Center. An expert in environmental fluid mechanics, his interests include hydrokinetic energy harvesting and smart energy systems.

Jefferson Tester has made several visits to Iceland to study its energy systems. His research on renewable and conventional energy extraction and conversion and environmental control technologies has resulted in more than 200 scientific publications and ten co-authored books.

The Einaudi Center Roundtable Discussion Series addresses issues in global affairs that cut across academic disciplines and/or regions of the world. The forums are free and open to faculty, visiting scholars, students, and members of the community.