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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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UK Looking at Subsea Cable to Tap Icelandic Geothermal Power

UK Looking at Subsea Cable to Tap Icelandic Geothermal Power

Among all the countries of the world, Iceland has arguably the most interesting power generation system. While the country lacks the beaches, geographic location, and population that would make it a significant economic power in say, tourism or international trade, it does have a very unique feature; its volcanos.

The island is largely powered by geothermal heat emanating from under the surface of the volcanic landscape. That has always made Iceland unusually warm (for its location anyway) despite its intimidating moniker. Now, Great Britain is looking to capitalize on that natural advantage of Iceland through a possible undersea power cable that would help Iceland export clean green geothermal power to tens of millions of British consumers. Related: Why Has Carbon Capture And Storage Not Taken Off Yet?

If it ends up coming to fruition, the UK/Iceland power project would be a monumental accomplishment, creating the world’s longest undersea power cable. With groundbreaking projects like that, it is always difficult to assess cost. Nonetheless, it’s worth estimating the price tag here to determine if the project is worthwhile. Undersea cable in other parts of the UK reportedly costs around $400 a foot. With the distance between the UK and Iceland coming in at around 750 miles or around 4 million feet, that means a simple estimate for the cost of the cable is around $1.6 billion. Alternatively, extrapolating the cost of the Iceland/UK project based on the BritNed cost of roughly $900 million for a 160M million connection, suggests a price tag of around $4.5 billion.

That’s fairly pricey of course, especially when compared to other major international cable projects like subsea internet cable. Yet it’s possible that, like subsea internet cable, the Iceland/UK project might be more efficient due to economies of scale versus smaller projects like the offshore Scottish windfarms. Those kind of efficiencies are really impossible to determine at this point though, as they depend a lot on the details of the project itself. For instance, the longer NorNed cable also cost around $900 million but for a 360 mile cable, so again, prices are relative and based on efficiency as much as project scope. In the past, when Icelandic politicians pitched the effort, they have cited a cost of around $7 billion. Related: Shrinking Norwegian Natural Gas Production Puts Europe In Dire Situation

Using a very rough cost of $2-9 billion for the Iceland/UK link, it’s worth asking about how economical the project would be. The BritNed cable has a capacity of 1000 MW or 1 million kilowatts. Assuming the UK/Iceland cable had the same capacity, and Iceland could produce enough power to supply it fully all year round, this would mean 8,760 hours of power or 8.76 billion kWh. That, in turn, implies a cost per kWh of carrying capacity of anywhere from around $0.22 to $1. These numbers are just theoretical, of course.

Iceland’s national power company has done a number of studies on the viability of a link with Scotland over the years, but until recently the proposal had not been deemed economically worthwhile. With rising power prices, this looks set to change. The Iceland/UK link would provide sufficient energy to power around 1.6 million British households according to the National Icelandic Power company Landsvirkjun. Related: The Race To Develop The Ultimate Battery

The deal would supply the British with power at a cost 15 percent below market rates in theory, but the bill for the cable would likely have to be paid for by British taxpayers or industry rather than the 320,000 Icelanders.

The Iceland/UK proposal has been made before, but as the world continues to look to lower its carbon footprint and introduce new alternative energy sources, it is just possible that the time might be right to actually start forward on a subsea cable between the countries.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com


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  • Philip Branton on November 04 2015 said:
    Mr. McDonald,

    Your attention to this subject and issue is great. Great strides have been made concerning energy transmission. It would be nice to see a breakout of the various designs in a "social contest". It would be really nice to see this breakout also take into consideration the energy produced by the Yellowstone National Geo-Thermal power grid so all veterans and citizens could actually see the choices that they could "demand" to power their own homes or electric cars. Furthermore, we wonder how an "open" solicitation from "investors" could actually drive the cost down for this Icelandic project so the Geo-thermal taps being planned in Africa could open up the transparency. What would also be interesting is to see just how many Russian or Iranian readers would link to this article plotted on a timeline as the "social contest" was being played..!


    Philip Branton

    (P.S.....this one article alone could swing 2016 elections if a certain map was used during a debate...)
  • John Scior on November 05 2015 said:
    I think it might be more useful for Iceland to utilize their surplus electricity by converting salty sea water into hydrogen through electrolysis. The hydrogen could be exported to all over the world. In fact in areas where there are water shortages, the hydrogen could be recombined with oxygen to not only provide electricity but also fresh water as well. Now your market base is not just the UK , but also all over the world.
  • Richard Corbin on November 07 2015 said:
    Hawaii tried geothermal. Spent a billion on it. Once completed, it was shut down because the Local "coconuts" that bow and pray ???? to their Volcano God, they call Peele, complained and filed a Federal suit under the guise of Religion, that their God was upset with Geothermal projects and even more angered by the White Caucasian infestation of the Hawaii Island Chain.

    That was said to say this, look at all the angles that could shut down the project before it can even get started or once completed, shut it down.

    Ask yourself, look around to see if there are any Hawaiian coconuts nearby.
  • Skuli Johannsson on November 08 2015 said:
    The statistics tells us that the probability of failure of subsea power cables is 0.1 times per year per 100 km. With a 1000 km subsea cable from Iceland to UK then it would be 1 times per year. The Iceland-UK subsea cable would be the first of its kind crossing an outer ocean, the Atlantic. If failure occurs in the autumn, maybe we would have to wait until next spring to get a weather window for repairing. This aspect has until now been avoided by the power companies involved, both in Iceland and UK. What kind of measures would have to be done to lower the risk of failure and at what cost?

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