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Imaggeo on Mondays: The breath of our Earth

Imaggeo on Mondays: The breath of our Earth

This picture was taken in the Myvatn geothermal area in southeast Iceland. Seeing the geothermal steam vent in this area while the temperature was -22 degrees Celsius is the best experience in Myvatn. The difference between Iceland’s cold ambient temperature and the released heat from inside the Earth is a really stunning event to see.

Iceland is situated in the middle of two tectonic plates (the Eurasian and North American plates) that, through their movement, have led to more than a hundred active and inactive volcanoes in this country. Due to the region’s high volcanic activity and shallow magma chambers, the temperature below Iceland’s surface is generally higher than that of continental areas without volcanoes. These conditions are responsible for the country’s high production of geothermal energy.

This heat can reach the surface in one of two ways. First, heat can naturally escape from the heart of Earth through cracks on the Earth’s surface itself. Second, geothermal powerplants can insert pipes far below the Earth’s surface to capture this heat.

Iceland is known for its geothermal spas, like the famous Blue Lagoon,  but additionally, Icelanders use geothermal energy as their main source of heating; in winter, almost 100 percent of the nation’s heating comes from geothermal energy. In the country’s capital Reykjavik, much of the city’s main roads are heated by this source, keeping the streets free from ice and snow. Geothermal energy also accounts for about 25 percent of the island’s electricity.

How is geothermal energy produced? As a heating source, geothermal power plants use a heat exchanger, a pipe that converts the hot water inside the earth into heat. It is then distributed within the steam pipe to residential areas. As an electricity source, power plants capture steam or hot water from geothermal areas to drive electricity generators. The machines convert the heat into electricity, which is then shared with Icelandic neighborhoods.

Because of its investment in a renewable energy source, Iceland is well known as a global leader in sustainability.

By Handriyanti Diah Puspitarini, University of Padova, Italy

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Breath from the underground

Imaggeo on Mondays: Breath from the underground

The heat seeping from the geothermal area which is part of the Krafla volcanic system in Iceland, ‘powers’ the steaming vent at Hverir (Hverarönd). The area is well known for its mud pots and sulphuric gas fumaroles, complete with pungent eggy smell.

Some of the vents are in fact boreholes drilled in the 50’s for sulphur exploration which have been turned into fumaroles, the steam is a result of a steam zone above boiling groundwater. High temperature geothermal areas are a byproduct of Iceand’s volcanic setting and the energy released can be used to power homes and infrastructure. Indeed, geothermal power facilities currently generate 25% of the country’s total electricity production. You can read all about that in an Imaggeo on Mondays we published a couple of months ago.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Climate-proofing the Netherlands

Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) fosters transatlantic relations, forges dialogue, and promotes leadership across energy and environmental policy landscapes. Former EGU Science Communications Fellow and ELEEP member Edvard Glücksman reports back from the Netherlands, where citizens manage the continuous threat of climate-related devastation through a combination of creatively adapted urban spaces and innovative new technologies.

In late January 1953, a storm over the North Sea wreaked havoc, causing one of the most devastating natural disasters that Northern Europe has ever seen. The surge of seawater overwhelmed coastal defences, causing extensive flooding along the Belgian, British, and Dutch coastlines.

The infamous North Sea Flood claimed roughly 2,500 lives, and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of houses. In the Netherlands, where roughly 70% of the nation’s territory lies at or below sea level, the flood submerged over 1,300 km² of the country’s territory, destroying around 10% of agricultural land and crippling its economy.

Rotterdam is Europe’s largest and busiest port. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
Rotterdam is Europe’s largest and busiest port. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Climate-proofing with blue solutions

The nation’s history of flooding has shaped urban design and construction initiatives across the Netherlands. This trend is particularly striking in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which lies in a delta roughly 7 m below sea level and is vulnerable to flooding from both seawater and heavy rain. Its complex system of dikes and seawalls have a one-in-10,000 years chance of breaking, high enough for the city to take pioneering steps towards developing sustainable water management practices in preparation for the most extreme future climate scenarios.

In the offices of the Rotterdam Climate Initiative (RCI), Lissy Nijhuis, Project Manager at Rotterdam Council, depicts the city’s climate adaptation strategy as one that has recently grown to embrace ‘blue solutions’ – mitigation strategies that allow humans to protect themselves against potential catastrophic flooding events, while continuing to live with and enjoy water. 

The Watersquare Benthemplein plaza discretely weaves flood management systems into the city’s urban landscape. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
The Watersquare Benthemplein plaza discretely weaves flood management systems into the city’s urban landscape. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

According to Nijhuis, these new solutions contrast starkly with conventional approaches, which rely on separating humans from water using the most robust and resilient physical barriers available.

The blue solutions approach means that, in recent years, the RCI has adopted a long-term strategy of ‘climate-proofing’ the city by subtly adding water management infrastructure to standard urban maintenance and redevelopment activities. Nijhuis explains that this is most effectively achieved by developing first with a practical, beautiful outcome in mind, and working backwards to adjust it to particular flooding mitigation requirements.

To that end, we visited the city’s notorious Watersquare Benthemplein pilot project, a water plaza that doubles as a flood buffer during heavy rainfall, pooling water from surrounding streets and thus relieving the most immediate pressure on public drainage systems. The construction, seven years in the making and used during our visit as a basketball court by school children, is a prime example of Rotterdam’s understated but highly effective water mitigation strategy. Other similar examples – built to reduce pressure on drainage sites in times of severe flooding – include car parks that double as water storage units and the presence of absorbent green roofing on houses.

ELEEP members gather in Rotterdam’s port area. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
ELEEP members gather in Rotterdam’s port area. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Halving emissions by 2020

Earlier this year, ELEEP visited Hamburg and witnessed first-hand the city’s commitment to transforming previously flooded and industrial areas into hubs for the development of green architecture and urban regeneration. Likewise, the Drijvend Paviljoen (Floating Pavilion) lies at the heart of Rotterdam’s mission to climate-proof itself in a sustainable manner.

Comprising three connected, floating hemispheres, anchored within the city’s old harbour, the Floating Pavilion serves as a pilot project within Rotterdam’s ambitious plan to construct a future community of floating homes. The pavilion floats on a 2.5 m-thick layer of polystyrene, which allows for construction directly on the water and is made of materials that are hundreds of times lighter than those used in conventional buildings. The roof, for example, is made of a triple-layer of foil, filled with pressurised air that insulates and keeps the building warm.

The solar-powered Floating Pavilion is a showpiece within Rotterdam Municipality’s goal of halving energy consumption and CO2 emissions in housing by 2020. It also allows stakeholders to better understand the potential challenges involved in drastically altering the city’s urban landscape, including for example how to interpret the city plan when the harbour areas becomes living quarters virtually overnight.

Rotterdam’s Drijvend Paviljoen (Floating Pavilion), a pilot in climate-proofing infrastructure. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
Rotterdam’s Drijvend Paviljoen (Floating Pavilion), a pilot in climate-proofing infrastructure. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Rotterdam’s port is by far the city’s most prominent industrial feature. Europe’s largest and busiest port, it covers an area of 5,299 hectares and shifts nearly 12 million cargo containers per year. It also hugely impacts Europe’s energy landscape, serving as the northwestern European hub for the arrival, production, and distribution of conventional and renewable energy. The port, which has a capacity of nearly 7,000 megawatts, powers nearly a quarter of the industry and homes in the Netherlands. At the same time, twice as much electricity will be generated by other power plants in northwestern Europe as a result of coal, biomass, and natural gas imported via Rotterdam.

In a broad-ranging talk, Ruud Melieste, an economist within the Corporate Strategy Department at the Port of Rotterdam, explains the pressures faced by the port as it strives to improve sustainability credentials. Important, he explains, is the global complexity within which EU energy issues must be understood, and the pressures faced by power, chemical, and refining industries as cheaper alternatives, such as US shale gas, are found elsewhere.

In response, Melieste offers three potential future scenarios for Rotterdam and the rest of northwestern Europe. The first, known as the ‘power’ scenario, focuses on maintaining the domination of fossil fuels through large-scale, centralised energy generation. In this scenario, big countries and companies determine future events. A second option is the ‘fusion’ scenario, which focuses on maintaining a diverse portfolio of stakeholders and solutions, and aims to gradually alter the economy towards sustainable energy use, while using shale gas as a transition fuel. The third, ‘unlimited’, scenario is based on radical innovations and the acknowledgement that climate change is a truly pressing problem. Here, the transition to renewables is seen as an economic opportunity, driven by decentralised energy systems. The Port of Rotterdam is prepared, according to Melieste, for the possibility that any of these three scenarios could play out. The one most likely to emerge, however, remains unknown.

Ruud Melieste, economist for the Port of Rotterdam, explains the dimensions of Europe’s busiest port. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
Ruud Melieste, economist for the Port of Rotterdam, explains the dimensions of Europe’s busiest port. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Although the basic idea behind Dutch climate protection strategies has persisted for over half a decade, the sites we visited in Rotterdam demonstrate that the city’s climate adaptation portfolio is slowly changing from a “dry feet at all costs” approach to one of integrative water management, where the duties associated with climate protection and the pleasures of urban space can more freely mix. The city and its port are central features in the supply of energy, water, and food to much of northern Europe. As a result, its pioneering climate-proofing efforts are in future likely to affect millions of European citizens, ensuring that extreme weather events, such as the storm of 1953, can be mitigated in the most sustainable and least invasive way possible.

By Edvard Glücksman, Associate Research Fellow, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter

ELEEP is a collaborative venture between two non-partisan think tanks, the Atlantic Council and Ecologic Institute, seeking to develop innovative transatlantic policy partnerships. Funding was initially acquired from the European Union’s I-CITE Project and subsequently from the European Union and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. ELEEP has no policy agenda and no political affiliation. Edvard’s current project is funded by the European Social Fund.

“Please, in my backyard”: Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg’s low-carbon overhaul at the forefront of Germany’s energy transition

The Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) Network brings together young professionals from Europe and North America with the aim of fostering transatlantic relations. Former EGU Science Communications Fellow and ELEEP member Edvard Glücksman describes a study visit to Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg borough, an unlikely leader in within Germany’s energy transition. This is his final post from the trip, which also included visits to the energy self-sufficient village of Feldheim and to Warsaw, for the COP19 climate change conference. 

Winter storms and floods are common along Europe’s coastline, but the memory of some remains long after the final waters recede. In Hamburg, for example, citizens are continuously reminded of the legendary 16 February 1962, the night a powerful flood unexpectedly enveloped their city. In what is known locally as the Great Flood, the Elbe River broke through its dyke system and submerged nearly one-fifth of Germany’s second largest city’s municipal areas, collapsing infrastructure and killing 315 people.

One of the city’s most damaged areas was the heavily populated borough of Wilhelmsburg, Europe’s largest river island, reduced that night to a stagnant backwater for decades thereafter. As the handful of remaining residents struggled to pry back their lives from the river, nobody would have imagined that, just half a century later, their neighbourhood would become a thriving cosmopolitan centre, home to docks, industry, green oases and over 50,000 inhabitants.

Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg borough deep underwater after the famous flood of 1962. The recovery took decades. (Credit: Gerhard Pietsch)

Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg borough deep underwater after the famous flood of 1962. The recovery took decades. (Credit: Gerhard Pietsch)

In fact, the Wilhelmsburg of today is at the forefront of Germany’s energy transformation (‘Energiewende’), the planet’s most ambitious nationwide commitment to a future powered almost entirely by renewables. Like the energy self-sufficient village of Feldheim and Berlin’s Energy Plus house, the borough is a microcosm of decentralised low-carbon living. Yet unlike these prototype projects, largely new creations, Wilhelmsburg impresses by sprinkling the optimism of a renewable energy future over areas historically blighted by war, industrial mismanagement and the wrath of nature.

On the final stop of our trip we visited the International Building Exhibition (IBA Hamburg) centre, a major driving force behind Wilhelmsburg’s formidable urban development. The IBA project, a real-world experiment in multicultural, sustainable living, stretches across Wilhelmsburg and on the neighbouring island of Veddel. The area comprises a total of 70 projects, urban space and building prototypes built up and offered to tenants for everyday living. The project is powered by previously dilapidated infrastructure retrofitted with the latest low-carbon energy generation, storage, and distribution technology. Of these, two projects capture the imagination, for their energy manufacturing capabilities but also for their particular place within the context of Hamburg’s inspirational rebirth.

ELEEP members scrutinise the layout of Wilhelmsburg at the IBA Hamburg media centre. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

ELEEP members scrutinise the layout of Wilhelmsburg at the IBA Hamburg media centre. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Energy generation and storage – with a view

On 25 August 1940, the RAF launched its first raid on Berlin in retaliation for the German bombing of London the previous day. As an immediate response, Hitler ordered the construction of a series of massive above-ground bunkers, known as flak towers, to house radar equipment and anti-aircraft guns, also providing shelter for tens of thousands of civilians across Berlin, Vienna, and Hamburg. With up to 4 m thick cement walls, the towers were virtually indestructible and Allied forces had to strategically work around them, ultimately sending in envoys to guarantee their submission.

After the war, these impenetrable fortresses remained standing, empty, ugly, and a brutal reminder of the German war machine. Some have since been renovated and opened up for public tours, offering a glimpse of the cramped and squalid conditions endured by so many during the latter years of WWII. Others have been completely refurbished, turned into entertainment venues and even nightclubs.

The Flakturm VI bunker, hastily erected in 1943 in Wilhelmburg’s Reiherstieg district, has undergone an even more radical transformation, from Nazi stronghold and shelter housing over 30,000 citizens, to a futuristic flagship structure of the IBA Hamburg exhibition.

We visited Flakturm VI, known as the ‘Energy Bunker’, just months after its unveiling. The once imposing eyesore, derelict since the British army gutted most of its interior after the war, now houses state-of-the-art energy generation and storage facilities aiming to reduce local annual carbon emissions by around 95%, or 6,600 tonnes of carbon per year.

Underneath the bunker’s cement exterior lays a complex low-emissions power and heating plant. The building is fitted with a photovoltaic shell: a rooftop solar thermal unit generating heat, and a south-facing system of solar panels producing electricity. Energy and heat are also produced by an in-house biogas ‘combined heat and power’ (CHP) plant. Through a clever siphoning system, waste heat from a neighbouring industrial plant is also co-opted by the bunker and fed into the heating grid, alongside heat derived from the building’s own wood chip burning facility. The 39-metre-high bunker also accommodates a massive 2,000 m³ water-based heat storage facility, which buffers the daily fluctuations characteristic of renewable energy sources.

Electricity and heat production in the Energy Bunker. (Credit: IBA Hamburg)

Electricity and heat production in the Energy Bunker (click to enlarge). (Credit: IBA Hamburg)

The resulting products supply most of the surrounding district with carbon-neutral heating whilst at the same time feeding electricity into the local grid. At peak use, the bunker will generate approximately 22,500 megawatt hours of heat and 3,000 megawatt hours of electricity, enough to heat and power roughly 3,000 and 1,000 local homes respectively.

With its historical exhibition and rooftop café (Café Vju), the Energy Bunker is a truly impressive project, and is the result of major local and European investment. Launched in 2006 and officially opened on 23 March 2013, the building’s refurbishment cost €27 million, of which €11.7 alone was spent on the technology and heating network. It was jointly funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Hamburg Climate Action Plan, which aims to shore up the city’s future commitment to climate protection.

The ‘Energy Bunker’, one big slab of cement. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

The ‘Energy Bunker’, one big slab of cement. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Peak efficiency on a disused landfill

We continued along our tour with a climb up the Georgswerder ‘Energy Hill’ (‘Energieberg’), another of IBA Hamburg’s flagship low-carbon redevelopment projects. As we clambered atop its green slopes, amidst wind turbines churning out renewable energy and with views over all of Hamburg, it was impossible to imagine that the 44-hectare site was a landfill for much of the post-war era.

Indeed, for decades, Georgswerder was gorged to the brink with rubble and domestic waste, and served as a clay pit for brick-making. Worse still, from 1967-74, the landfill was also used as Hamburg’s primary industrial waste dump, accumulating highly poisonous remains of lacquer and paint until it was officially closed in 1979. In total, 14 million m³ of waste material was deposited at the site, forming an imposing pile over 40 m high. Crammed full of household garbage and toxins, the hill had by then been shut off to the public for decades. And the worst was still to come.

In 1983, it was discovered that highly toxic dioxins were leaching into the groundwater, prompting a lengthy and expensive clean-up campaign. The site was dried, sealed with a plastic sheet, and covered in topsoil, and any remaining seepage water was collected, purified, and drained.

A few years later, a local working group of experts and residents combined forces and decided to, almost literally, turn the rubbish pile into a long-lasting source of renewable energy. Two generations of wind turbines were erected at the hill’s summit and, more recently, its south-facing slope was covered in photovoltaics. Even the hill’s rotting core is tapped: the methane released through decomposition is collected and used by a nearby copper smelting company.

Today, the site’s photovoltaic system and wind turbines generate approximately 12,200 megawatt hours per year, enough to power around 4,000 households.

Georgswerder ‘Energy Hill’: ELEEPers admire the view on what used to be a landfill and toxic waste dump. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Georgswerder ‘Energy Hill’: ELEEPers admire the view on what used to be a landfill and toxic waste dump. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Investing in acceptance

Hamburg is amassing green credentials and growing increasingly bolder as it plans for the future. Stefan Schurig of the World Future Council described to us the city’s emergence on the frontline of Germany’s energy transition, which hinges on a widespread acceptance for low-emissions projects at the community, socio-political, and marketplace levels. The shifting public perception of carbon-neutral infrastructure, from NIMBYs (“not in my back yard”) to PIMBYs (“please, in my back yard”), is therefore a vital first step in developing the country’s energy strategy. Participation triggers acceptance and, Schurig claims, acceptance triggers investment.

In Wilhelmsburg, life has never been so good. As a result, the IBA Hamburg sites we visited, though restricted to a single locality, are widely accepted by the community. Specifically, the Energy Bunker and Hill demonstrate that dilapidated infrastructure can, with some initial investment, be turned into long-term zero-emissions sources of energy and heating. Such projects guide Germany’s progression towards fulfilling the remarkable energy portfolio shift it proposes: decentralised yet scalable, flexible yet reliable; and, above all, profitable. As public support grows, further investment will surely follow.

By Edvard Glücksman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Duisburg-Essen

ELEEP is a collaborative venture between two non-partisan think tanks, the Atlantic Council and Ecologic Institute, seeking to develop innovative transatlantic policy partnerships. Funding was initially acquired from the European Union’s I-CITE Project and subsequently from the European Union and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. ELEEP has no policy agenda and no political affiliation.