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Iceland makes circularity look effortless

An industrial resource park in Iceland is built around geothermal and circular principles.

The Blue Lagoon spa, which uses mineral-rich hot water and facemasks from the geothermal operations.

Image via Sarah Golden/GreenBiz

Last June, I had the opportunity to visit the magical country of Iceland to see its climate tech and clean energy facilities. (I was invited by Green By Iceland, which kindly footed the bill.) What I found that week was more holistic: a philosophy of resources and capitalism that captures the spirit of sustainability. 

I’ve been thinking about Iceland as I get ready for Circularity 23, a GreenBiz event that convenes leaders to rethink our extractive, linear systems and move towards a circular economy. 

The concept of "circularity" is both obvious and profound. It’s keeping molecules in circulation for as long as possible, transforming the way we think of "waste" and challenging manufacturers to consider what happens to products after they land in the hands of consumers. In our disposable, consumer, capitalist society, this seems revolutionary. 

Yet if you take the smallest of steps back, it seems absurd that companies wouldn’t have to consider the impact of their inputs and outputs. Not only does that forego responsibilities of externalities, it also is leaving potential new resource streams on the table.

Inside the greenhouse at Orf Genetics, which stays warm and gets water from the geothermal resource park.

Inside the greenhouse at Orf Genetics, which stays warm and gets water from the geothermal resource park. Image via Sarah Golden/GreenBiz

Sarah Golden

The Icelandic case study: a geothermal resource park

HS Orka is the largest and only privately owned energy company in Iceland. It operates the country’s third largest geothermal plant, Reykjanes, with 174 megawatts of installed capacity.

Beyond producing energy, the company’s stated goal is to "maximize the utilization of the geothermal fluid" — in other words, repurpose its waste to create new value. The philosophy: One company’s output is another company’s input.

Ten companies are clustered in HS Orka’s Resource Park, using geothermal byproducts in their own operations. Among those using resources from HS Orka’s plant: 

  • The Blue Lagoon, an expansive spa that uses electricity, hot water, geothermal brine, steam and CO2 from the geothermal operations to create a facility that attracts 1.3 million visitors a year. It also uses the silica and minerals geothermal byproducts for skin care products. 
  • Orf Genetics, a biotech company that grows barley in a high-tech greenhouse to develop a plant-based growth factor for cosmetics and cell-cultured meat. The company uses crushed volcanic rock, electricity and water from Reykjanes. 
  • Stolt Sea Farm, which uses warm, lava-filtered sea water to raise the famed sole fish, which it sells to restaurants in North America and Europe
  • Haustak and Laugafiskur, two fish processing companies that use thermal energy and steam from the power plant to dry fish offcuts to turn into a protein source for African markets. 
  • Carbon Recycling International, which uses the power plant’s carbon dioxide, electricity and water to make methanol from geothermal byproducts. 

HS Orka actively courts green and sustainable companies to locate close to the geothermal facility, boasting to be a "one stop shop" for power, infrastructure and resources.

HS Orka’s geothermal plant, Reykjanes.

HS Orka’s geothermal plant, Reykjanes. Image via Sarah Golden/GreenBiz

Sarah Golden

The rise of industrial symbiosis

Clustering industrial development close together is not a new idea. There are currently close to 20,000 industrial parks around the world, including about 380 in the United States, according to a 2021 study in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling. But the idea of a community of businesses locating close to one another and collaborating to achieve enhanced environmental, economic and social performance, known as an eco-industrial park, is less common, with an estimated 250 examples globally.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)  is aiming to change that through its contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals. UNIDO dubs the work industrial symbiosis "a means by which companies can gain a competitive advantage through the physical exchange of materials, energy, water and by-products, thereby fostering inclusive and sustainable development."

The work to formalize this is relatively new. UNIDO’s framework was released in 2016, followed by the first joint international framework in 2018.

The concept, however, is not new. HS Orka, for example, started its work in 1974, attracting the first co-location company in 1983. And the idea of using resources to their full potential is obvious, if one agrees resources are finite and planetary boundaries exist. It’s as simple as First Nations people using every part of the buffalo or Vikings using every part of the reindeer. The idea that we wouldn’t examine every waste stream as a potential input must be an aberration of the moment of capitalism, where scale is valued and externalities ignored. 

Blue Lagoon’s research and development lab, which uses silica byproduct from geothermal to make beauty products.

Blue Lagoon’s research and development lab, which uses silica byproduct from geothermal to make beauty products.  Image via Sarah Golden/GreenBiz

Sarah Golden

Overthinking circularity 

Thinking back to Iceland, I’m struck by how obvious it seemed to the team at HS Orka to find partners for its waste streams. Each new company that co-locates, it pointed out, is a new revenue stream for HS Orka and strengthens the local economy. 

When I tried to ask questions from my U.S.-centric perspective — Isn’t it hard to find companies? Isn’t it expensive to integrate? Does it slow down operations? — I was met with blank stares. 

I love the Circularity conference because it is a smorgasbord of stories such as HS Orka. It's full of organizations trying to do the sane thing — consider their impacts holistically and get smart about addressing them. Yet I’m also struck by how strange our markets have become. We’ve gotten so far away from operating in ways that are logical; we need to get together to widen our aperture to do things that are often obvious.

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