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Robert Rapier

Robert Rapier

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Fact Checking Bernie Sanders On Renewable Energy

When discussing energy policies, I think it’s critical to accurately represent facts. Otherwise, we may end up making ineffective policy decisions based on myths or half-truths.

For example, last week Senator Bernie Sanders shared this video about geothermal energy on his Facebook page. The two-minute video was done by “The Years Project“, whose mission is “a global storytelling and education effort to inform, empower, and unite the world in the face of climate change.”

The video starts out asking how Iceland went from being Europe’s poorest country to one of its richest. The answer, the video asserts, lies deep underground, where Iceland gets “most of its energy” from geothermal power.

This is misleading.

Iceland does utilize geothermal power, but more than 70 percent of the country’s electricity production comes from hydropower.

According to Iceland’s National Energy Authority, geothermal power produces about 25 percent of the country’s electricity. But many of Iceland’s homes are heated by geothermal water, and that is the source of the myth that Iceland runs mostly on geothermal power.

The video goes on to claim that geothermal is as clean as wind or solar power. It is true that the carbon footprint of geothermal is low, but the water contains dissolved sulfur compounds. It does smell just as strongly as an oil well or a refinery in many locations. Related: The Quiet Swing Producers: Iraq, Libya, Nigeria

The video further claims that between geothermal and hydropower, “Iceland has 100 percent renewable energy.” That is inaccurate. The vast majority of the country’s vehicles are powered by fossil fuels. I was in Iceland last week, and almost every vehicle I saw on the road was running on fossil fuels.

Screenshot from Bernie Sanders’ Facebook page

But then the video gets into the mythology that the U.S. has now taken note of Iceland’s success, and is in the process of replicating it. The fact is that the U.S. has always been the global leader in geothermal power production.

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of geothermal power, with over five times Iceland’s geothermal capacity. This year’s Renewables Global Status Report shows just how far ahead of the rest of the world the U.S. actually is:

(Click to enlarge)

Global Geothermal Power Capacity

On a per capita basis and as a percentage of overall U.S. energy consumption it’s a pretty low amount. But unlike the U.S., Iceland is a small, sparsely populated country right on top of a geothermal hot spot.

This is certainly not meant as a criticism of geothermal power as an energy source, or of Iceland as a country. Geothermal is an important renewable energy source, and Iceland has rightfully embraced it.

But the video gives a misleading impression of Iceland as a country powered by geothermal energy, and it grossly understates the leading role of the U.S. in geothermal power. This video leaves the impression that the U.S. followed Iceland’s lead. But no country has ever produced more geothermal power than the U.S.

By Robert Rapier

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Leave a comment
  • Lee on October 25 2018 said:
    Thanx for the article. Bernie is a socialist and socialists have never let facts and truth get in the way of a good story(lie).
  • John on October 25 2018 said:
    Thanks for the article. I also thought that Iceland was mostly geothermal powered, so it is good to know that hydro plays a huge roll.

    Can't wait for the Fact Checking Donald Trump article/novel.
  • Oul industry geologist on October 26 2018 said:
    What does the scent have to do with the comparative heating/power generation utility of geothermal fluids vs oil? That is a red herring.

    What you might discuss in this article (to sound more convincing) is the proportion of energy needs met by geothermal power in the US, compared to all energy needs. Or per capita (which you started to, but neglected to finish with numbers). The US also ‘leads’ Iceland in population about as much as it dies in geothermal — sure, we have more. But how much is it part of your life, or the average American?

    As a geologist I wish we all used it a lot more. It’s abundant and nearly everywhere can be accessed to a minor (but cost effective) degree. Even if it just means installing a simple water tank system plumber into the ground to cool your house in summer and warm it in winter (fluctuating around 50-60 degrees F).
  • jamcl3 on October 26 2018 said:
    The writer suggests that energy for home heating is somehow less important than energy for producing electricity? And a quick search indicates that Iceland has an EV adoption rate that is ten times higher than the European average, second only to Norway's EV adoption rate. I find the point of this article to be rather blunt for a usually sharp website.
  • Tom on October 26 2018 said:
    Please stop polarizing these topics, and mismanaging the words to artificially bolster an unstated viewpoint that you are trying to advance in the context of a debate about renewable, vs. non renewable resources. "Energy" is heat, that is drawn from underground water sources. Sulfur smelling water is not a pollutant, and is most often re-injected into the ground from where it came and is irrelevant to the topic. Ground source heat pumps (reverse air conditioners) can also be utilized to take heat from relatively cool water, and is completely ignored in your article. I would venture to suggest that your article is far less comprehensive, meaningful, logical or truthful, than the publication endorsed by Bernie Sanders. Additionally, I am concerned that you have a very limited knowledge in the area you are commenting on, as your information is incomplete, out of context and very short sighted. Just sayin'
  • Lee James on October 27 2018 said:
    Energy is complicated. Perhaps the biggest test for Bernie is how well he can correct himself after getting new information. Some politicians will not correct themselves at all, no matter what.

    Maybe follow-up with Bernie to see what he says in light of new information?

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