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This Is What Iceland Looks Like After A Decade Of Green Technology Investment

As the US rejoins the Paris climate agreement and global powerhouses such as China make big pledges for carbon reductions, there is more interest in finding innovative, climate-friendly solutions.

Posted on January 26, 2021, at 2:57 p.m. ET

Simone Tramonte

The Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland's most important tourist attractions. Geothermal water that has already generated electricity at the Svartsengi Power Station and has passed through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system is finally fed into the lagoon. The water’s high silica content keeps it from leaching into the lava field and gives it an appealing aqua tint.

What does a carbon neutral future even look like? The world faces catastrophic global warming, and the only way to prevent that fate is for humans to stop releasing so much climate pollution, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. But how would that work? Simone Tramonte has a possible answer. The Italian photographer's most recent project focuses on the progress already made by societies where green energy and sustainability policies are favored, starting with Iceland. The country intends to be carbon neutral by 2040 and may reach that goal even sooner, thanks to aggressive and innovative carbon policies.

Tramonte partnered with researcher Francesca Dini, who relied on connections as a grant writer within the tech industry to find promising companies, eventually looking at carbon capture programs, geothermal energy plants, greenhouses, and fisheries that provided sustainable local food sources, among others. "We’re hoping to show Iceland as a model, at least compared to other countries, so we thought it was a good start. In general, we want to show what’s going on and what is next," Dini said.

Simone Tramonte

Bioeffect greenhouse located in the lava fields of Reykjanes Peninsula. This high-tech carbon-negative greenhouse uses energy and heat from the neighboring Svartsengi Blue Lagoon Power Station.

Iceland has the most comprehensive programs to show, in part because the country invested heavily in green technology after the 2008 financial crisis. The island nation also has pushed for public campaigns to show the effects of climate change on the country, hosting a funeral for its first glacier lost to climate change and working to reforest its land after it was extensively logged by the Vikings centuries ago. "They understood that the green economy and green tech could be a way, so they invested a lot,” Dini said. “The other reason that we saw was the fact that their glaciers are melting, so climate change was something that was happening in front of their eyes.”

Simone Tramonte

Water pipes in Hellisheidi geothermal area. The area covers about 112 square kilometers and constitutes one of the most extensive geothermal areas in Iceland. After the energy production processes, any excess steam is cleaned from CO2 and H2S while the emissions caused by the volcanoes are harnessed. These chemicals are then remineralized or used industrially to ensure the least impact on the environment as possible.

After months of research, Tramonte and Dini were able to visit Iceland for a few weeks during a summer lull in the coronavirus pandemic. The final project highlights a growing interdependence between technology, humans, and the natural world. "We wanted to cover several aspects of green policy. For example, the plastic recycling — it's not directly related to climate change, but it helps the environment," Dini said.

As the US rejoins the Paris climate accord and global powerhouses such as China make big pledges for carbon reductions, there is more interest in finding innovative, climate-friendly solutions, a trend that will hopefully accelerate as the effects of global warming become more apparent. Tramonte and Fini are intent on continuing to document the growth of the clean energy industry in Italy and Switzerland while waiting for wider travel restrictions to lift. In the meantime, their work highlights a hopeful vision for the near future.

Simone Tramonte

A borehole at the Hellisheiði geothermal plant, in Hengill. Hot fluid is extracted through 30 wells at a depth of 2,000 meters to 3,000 meters. Geodesic domes over each borehole help reduce the visual blot on the landscape.

Simone Tramonte

The George Olah renewable methanol plant commissioned by Carbon Recycling International in Grindavik. The plant is a cutting-edge innovation in the field of carbon capture and utilization as it was the first industrial-scale production facility ever built which utilizes carbon dioxide waste gas as a resource for methanol production. The plant uses gases and water waste coming from the neighboring Svartsengi geothermal power plant and releases no toxic byproducts. Methanol is an efficient fuel source for cars, which reduces CO2 emissions by 90% compared to gasoline or diesel.

Simone Tramonte

Lettuce seedlings at Vaxa vertical farm in Reykjavik. By cultivating on many floors, the need for land is reduced. The control system optimizes energy and water utilization. Cultivation is completely independent of external factors, such as seasons, weather, insect, or plant diseases. Vaxa’s produce can be reliably grown 24/7 without any pesticide.

Simone Tramonte

Kjartan, a researcher at the Icelandic Agricultural University, in the banana plantation in Hveragerði. This greenhouse has been growing bananas for research purposes since the 1950s and it is one of Europe‘s largest plantations. "Hveragerði" means "hot springs garden." In this area, geothermal energy has been used for decades to heat the greenhouses and to provide illumination during the darkest months.

Simone Tramonte

The fish farm of Ice Fish Farm in Faskrudsfjordur. There is great attention to sustainable and responsible fish farming, achieved through an eco-friendly operation that nurtures both the environment and workers. Fish farming in the Atlantic fiords has zero bycatch, as no other species are unintentionally caught or harmed by fishing lines or nets. There is no need to use antibiotics, chemicals, or delousing and no antifouling on nets. Fish are fed with non-GMO feed ensuring a GMO-free operation.

Simone Tramonte

A fish tank in Matorka land-based aquaculture plant, in Grindavik. Arctic chars and rainbow trouts are raised in a controlled environment without antibiotics, chemicals, or hormones. One single mixing tank is used both to mix the water from the wells and purge the fish prior to harvest. Only 20% of the water is released to clean out waste, while 80% is recirculated.

Simone Tramonte

Aslaug (Asa), cofounder of Pure North Recycling, in front of disposed plastic ready to be recycled. “This is our money,” Asa said in front of this plastic garbage. The company implements a process that allows recycling plastic completely without using any chemicals, but only steam, water, and electricity provided by the geothermal plant. Plastic processed by their facility is turned into a raw material that is then sold to companies that make new products from it.

Simone Tramonte

Kristinn Haflidason, CEO of Algaennovation, monitors one of their photobioreactors in the micro-algae production facility, at ON’s Geothermal Park in Hellisheiði. Algaennovation uses water and electricity from the nearby Hellisheiði geothermal power plant and transforms carbon dioxide emissions in a process that turns waste to value in a sustainable manner. Their proprietary technology for micro-algae cultivation enables Algaennovation to have negative carbon footprints and use less than 1% of freshwater and land areas used by conventional small-scale algae companies.

Simone Tramonte

Micro-algae production facility of Algaennovation, in Hengill. Algaennovation is an Israeli startup that in September 2019 established a new facility in ON’s Geothermal Park to buy hot and cold water, electricity, and carbon dioxide from Hellisheidi Power Plant. Growth and performance of each alga strain are continuously optimised using machine learning and data analytics techniques.

Simone Tramonte

Gardener planting barley seeds in inert volcanic pumice at the Bioeffect greenhouse. The company has developed an innovative expression system that uses barley grain as a vehicle for the production of recombinant human and animal growth factors, which are used in luxury anti-aging cosmetic products.

Simone Tramonte

Larch and birch seedling at Torfastadir farm, near Hvammstangi. The farm is owned by Hrefna, a volunteer of the Icelandic forest service. Afforestation has been named as part of Iceland's climate strategy, as forests allow to capture a significant part of carbon emission.

Simone Tramonte

Hrefna, a volunteer of the Icelandic Forest Service (IFS). A century ago, most Icelanders had never even seen a tree. Sixty years ago, few Icelanders started planting trees even if many thought that trees could not grow in Iceland due to the harsh climate. Today, reforestation and afforestation are being carried out by thousands of people all over Iceland. Volunteers assist the forest associations by planting seedlings and by fertilizing young trees. The country has a goal to create a 5% forest cover in the next 50 years.

Simone Tramonte

The country lost most of its trees more than 1,000 years ago, when Vikings settlers harvested the forests to build their homes and boats and as fuel. As climate change has become a greater concern, Iceland’s leaders have viewed reforestation as a way to help the country meet its climate goals. Reforesting the Icelandic countryside has benefits for farmers and counteract erosion and sandstorms. Thanks to the reforestation initiatives 3 million or more trees were planted in recent years.


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