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Fact Checking Bernie Sanders On Geothermal Energy


Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a keynote session at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Friday, March 9, 2018. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

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.”

In this case, however, the video does a bit of misinforming.

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% of the country’s electricity production comes from hydropower.

According to Iceland’s National Energy Authority, geothermal power produces about 25% 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.

The video further claims that between geothermal and hydropower, “Iceland has 100% 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 pageRobert Rapier

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:

Global Geothermal Power CapacityREN21 GSR

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.

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