All images credit to Elizabeth Dressehaus.

Researching renewable energy in iceland

Elizabeth Dresselhaus is a junior and University Scholar from Boulder, Colorado studying Physics.


Summer of a Lifetime

Elizabeth Dresselhaus spent summer 2014 in Iceland studying renewable energy technologies and effects of government energy policy on developments in this sector. Renowned for its geothermal energy and new deep drilling project, Iceland was an ideal laboratory for Dresselhaus whose interests lie in the intersection of Earth sciences and social policy. Immersion in the breathtaking country of Iceland took Dresselhaus’s research from a 2-D to 3-D experience, as she was able to tour actual power plants and have conversations with the people who programmed the turbines.

Dresselhaus’s favorite experience was interviewing the project director for the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), Bjarni Palsson. “I just walked in to the national power company and we talked for two hours. It’s amazing how open people are,” said Dresselhaus. 


Lessons Learned

During her eight weeks in Iceland, Dresselhaus learned that the country is particularly suited for geothermal energy. In the experimental technology of harnessing supercritical steam from magma, the wells scientists drill to access the fluid are 2.5 km deep, which is not as deep would be necessary in other places; therefore, making it cheaper and more practical for this type of drilling. Supercritical geothermal power has the potential to generate 10 times more power than regular power.

Dresselhaus has examined the potential for deep drilling in other parts of the world and the economic implications. “Australia has a lot of potential,” said Dresselhaus. “The government is investing a lot in renewables goal is 30% by 2030. Most countries have not done enough geological research to determine if this drilling technology has potential. There is also a California salt trough between LA and San Diego with an existing geothermal field, which could be a good experimental zone.”

Her work in Iceland helped her gain context on the potential of renewable energy. “[Icelanders] are proud of their resources. People assume that it’s sustainable because it’s marketed by governments as something that’s good,” said Dresselhaus, “but there are negative consequences and ultimately threats to the wellbeing of their society.” Iceland began producing an excess of renewable energy in 1995. They decided to sell energy to the highest bidder, and over 90% is used to fuel aluminum smelting industry, which heavily consumes carbon and is not environmentally friendly. Aluminum plants need to expand and this necessitates the construction of new power plants. Iceland has consented to foreign industry building new hydroelectric dams and flooding the land, which causes the loss of key areas of cultural heritage. “


Bringing it Back to Penn

Dresselhaus’s experience in the field encouraged her to pursue an engineering minor and take more classes outside of her comfort zone, such as geophysics. She currently manages the Biosphere Residential Program in Kings Court English College House and has been involved with Eco-Reps and the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES). She also enjoys conducting independent research on semi-conductors and solar panels. Although still unsure of future career pursuits, Dresselhaus is considering solar energy and working in a government energy research field.

Dresselhaus reflected, “I now know that the solution to sustainable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, tidal, and geothermal, is not straightforward. It’s going to need to be a smart and thoughtful transition where scientists, businesses, and governments work together.”