Penn Sophomore Seeks to Globalize Iceland’s Innovations in Renewable Energy

By Christina Cook

Geothermal energy has proven to be a reliable, sustainable and eco-friendly means of providing power. It is said to be capable of meeting the world’s energy demands, in theory. But can it break our potentially catastrophic dependence on fossil fuels in practice? For University of Pennsylvania sophomore Elizabeth Dresselhaus, the answer lies buried deep below Iceland, so that’s where she spent the summer trying to find it.

Dresselhaus’ initial research project was to search for “the ‘secret’ behind Iceland’s renewable energy success,” but, she says, “within a week of arriving in Iceland I found that there really isn’t one, other than Iceland’s ideal geographic location for abundant reserves of geothermal energy and hydropower.”

After realizing this, she changed the direction of her research to focus on the country’s innovative new approach to geothermal power, deep drilling for supercritical fluid, and see if it could be applied elsewhere in the world.

“Supercritical geothermal power is a new variation of this resource which could generate up to 10 times as much power per well as conventional geothermal power,” the University Scholar from Boulder, Colo., says. “It has thus far only been explored in Iceland as part of the Iceland Deep Drilling Project.”

In fact, she says that the IDDP scientists are the ones who discovered these techniques and are now in the process of refining them, “experimenting with better implementations as the project progresses.”

As part of her project, Dresselhaus screened sites around the world based on their potential for supercritical drilling: she reviewed underground temperature data, population distribution, proximity to tectonic plates and local renewable energy policies.

“The only areas I was able to explore for this technology were the Salton Trough near San Diego and areas of Australia. This is partly due to the fact that most areas of the world have not conducted research or published data relevant to deep underground temperatures but mostly because of the high cost of drilling deep enough to extract supercritical fluid in most areas.”

Based on her research, Dresselhaus concluded that “significant technological advances in the geothermal drilling process are required to achieve widespread use of supercritical geothermal power.”

This finding led her to a second conclusion, which she says was “one of the most interesting insights I gleaned from studying and researching in Iceland,” that geothermal energy experts and the oil industry could work together to make this happen.

“Originally, I proposed looking at oil drilling to create an economic model for deep geothermal drilling, so the idea had been in my head for a while, but it was confirmed by delving into papers written about the IDDP process.”

Dresselhaus says that such a partnership “could have positive impacts economically as well, giving jobs to petroleum engineers and finding an avenue to apply the plethora of knowledge gathered from oil drilling over the centuries. Perhaps our investment in fossil fuels could come full circle to ultimately benefit renewable energy and global sustainability.”

Dresselhaus says IDDP’s director, Bjarni Palsson, who came from a petroleum engineering background, agrees. She had the chance to meet and interview Palsson this summer.

Dresselhaus says the meeting was the highlight of her summer.

“We spent almost two hours talking about science and technology. It was a remarkable experience.”

And the sample he gave her of cooled magma from the first drilling done by the IDDP was, she says, “the best souvenir I could have gotten from Iceland.” 

In her blog, “Icelandic Adventures,” Dresselhaus describes her time in the northern climes as “eye-opening.”  She says “it is an amazing experience to be able to do research here on geothermal energy while witnessing the issues surrounding it firsthand. Though Iceland has a plethora of renewable energy resources, what is hidden from many foreigners by the media is that industries such as American aluminum are exploiting Iceland’s natural resource by drilling for geothermally-heated fluid in scenic areas and flooding other areas with macro-scale hydropower projects.”

Although Dresselhaus had read articles about this issue before, she says that “the scale of the exploitation and the ensuing socioeconomic issues were clarified much more by being there. Local scientists and citizens were very vocal about the issue and presented an opposite view of the American news sources.” 

Dresselhaus’ work in Iceland has inspired her to add electrical engineering to her intended major in physics.

“My study of renewable energy revealed how water-dependent most energy sources have become, as nearly all sources of energy, with the exception of nuclear and solar photovoltaics, require heating of steam to turn a turbine. Water is a scarce resource in many parts of the world and many places cannot adopt renewable sources like geothermal or hydropower as a result. This realization turned me to thinking of electrical engineering because it can use properties of electricity and matter to generate energy with different fundamental methods.”

The fact that her favorite class at Penn so far was “Electricity and Magnetism,” an honors class taught by ­­­­Charles Kane, a professor of physics in the School of Arts & Sciences, contributed to the decision.

She sees “technological advancement as crucial to the viability of renewable energy development in the future” and feels a dual degree that pairs these two disciplines would prepare her to contribute to this advancement.

“My time in Iceland has certainly helped me to see that solving the energy crisis is dependent on interdisciplinary studies and initiatives. Balancing economic growth with environmental protection and social issues is the challenge of sustainable energy development, and I hope to work with other subjects in the future even though I plan on approaching energy mostly from the technological perspective.”

Story Photo