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Landscapes of Embedded Energy: The Lifecycle and Use of Geothermal Energy in Iceland

Iceland has become the leading global producer of geothermal energy per capita. Geologically one of the youngest countries in the world, it has only emerged out of the ocean in the last 20 million years. Iceland sits on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a 10,000-mile long divergent fault line-crack along the ocean floor caused by the slow separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, two of the largest within the northern hemisphere. This unique geological condition occurs only in Iceland and is responsible for the abundance of geothermal resources the country has. By moving away from each other at a rate of 2 cm per year, pressure releases and exposes lava to the sea between them. The lava bubbles to the surface and cools, forming new land. It is the only place in the world where fire creates new land while ice simultaneously shapes the landscape. These geological conditions provide the circumstances in which a society may begin to sustain itself by integrating their operations of agriculture, aquaculture, industry, and recreation with the heat and electricity generated by the geothermal resource. This Penny White Research Project observes Iceland as a case study for understanding the cultural, social, and economic importance, significance, and implications of the active renewable energy source.

The photo essay displayed here catalogs the lifecycle and use of geothermal energy in Iceland. It moves sequentially in the process: resource, exploration/extraction, processing, delivery, industrial and recreational uses, emergent ecologies, and end of use/questions of afterlife. The goal of the project is to document what the current uses are, and uncover what waste byproducts are produced to foster emergent economies and ecologies.

Please contact me if you’d like more information.

Material Ecologies: Mapping Material Lifecycles and Properties

While studying landscape architecture, I took a class with Jane Hutton called “Material Ecologies.” Each student selected a landscape material within a certain site to trace. The materials were then analyzed and their lifecycles were catalogued, with a general overview of where they were sourced and the processes they underwent to become a material in the landscape. That summer, Jane received a PITF grant to synthesize the coursework. Over the following year, I worked with her to develop a more in-depth analysis of the materials selected in the course.

I developed a codification system to diagram the 16 materials’ lifecycles and used GIS and data from manufacturers to generate a global map. The map illustrates the points of origins of raw materials and admixtures, as well as points of manufacture, which were involved in the production of the 16 materials on their way to the study site in Cambridge, MA. The diagrams illustrate to-scale linear distances traveled by materials to arrive at the study site. The map describes and visualizes the implications of landscape material choices and decisions, and illustrates how materials used locally have global impacts, depending on their points of origin, methods of extraction and production, as well as methods of disposal.

Energy Afterlife: Choreographing the Geothermal Gradient of Reykjanes, Iceland- Masters Thesis

Energy is the basis of life and the fuel for modern civilization. The energy industry can be reconsidered by uncovering where operations can overlap and hybridize with other infrastructures, economies, and ecologies. Energy Afterlife explores the reutilization of geothermal effluent from Reykjanes Geothermal Power Plant in southwest Iceland. Reusing its residual energy creates a post-production, spin-off process that yields a new landscape formed by thermal principles and the compression and extension of its temperature gradient. Algae cultivation and production, revegetation strategies, and temperature’s experiential qualities are interwoven to form a thermal resource park. Heat is reexamined as an invisible, phenomenological design material, which can be captured, contained, and released through conduction, convection, and radiation properties and techniques inherent in particular materials and forms.

The Reykjanes Geothermal Power Plant, opened in 2006, uses 15 boreholes to withdraw 300°C thermal brine from 1.6 ~ 3km below grade. This critically hot water passes through steam separators, which extract water and minerals before the steam is sent to the turbines. Thermal brine effluent is 190°C after the purification process, and is piped to a cooler where it is mixed with 8°C sea water to reduce its temperature before disposal. At 57°C, the effluent is sent down an 800m long concrete culvert and released to the Atlantic Ocean at a rate of 4,000 liters per second.

Energy Afterlife repurposes this effluent instead of discarding it. The temperature gradient can be used as a thermal device in the landscape to create micro-habitats, climates, ecologies, and economies.

Energy Afterlife proposes an alternative methodology for using geothermal energy by exploiting the thermal gradient, decentralizing the network of energy use, and seizing every opportunity for programming across multiple temperature scales — thereby moving towards a visible hybridization of industrial, ecological, and cultural processes. The variable uses of thermal gradients in relationship to multiple programs are manifested as Thermal Worlds, assigning meaning to temperature. This is highlighted in two particular Worlds. Extreme Heat creates a territory whose heat is experienced from a distance, through radiation and conduction. Heat in the form of radiation is captured and transferred with the use of materials. In contrast, Extreme Algae is a world whose temperatures, which are optimal for all programs to occur, are stretched and retained across a large swath of land.

Water is an element essential to Icelanders’ cultural identity. In Energy Afterlife, the material of geothermal water is both medium and subject, in all of its states and temperatures. It engages the senses and invites visitors to consider its thermal gradient: its effects, its texture, and the way it generates a natural process of making and a new cultural process of gathering, transporting, and arranging the heated material. The new landscape is a rare geothermal saline environment, interwoven with opportunities for research, education, and recreation. A landscape of Energy Afterlife is formed: effluent waste is reused and repurposed, becoming a spin-off from a residual geothermal energy production process.

Excerpt from 3/13 Article in “Landscape Architecture Frontiers”                   To download a PDF of the article, please go to the LAF website.

Ornithological Reserve

South Weymouth Naval Air Station is a former military Superfund site that has been closed under the Base Realignment and Closure program. The challenge of the studio is to develop strategies to remediate contamination, make regional connections, and develop the site through natural and infrastructural systems in order to produce a multi-faceted landscape that enhances ecology and provides a value-added benefit to the Boston metropolis.

My team developed the site as an Ornithological Reserve. Our main focus was the enhancement of the site’s natural systems and habitat functions. Over a period of time from the present to 2050, we proposed to transform the site into an ecological preserve that serves as regional green infrastructure while resisting the spread of low-density, inefficiently allocated development. The defining characteristic of the site is its open space, which provides expansive views that are unique to the region – and more importantly, the opportunity to establish an extensive grassland ecosystem. The region is lacking in these vital landscapes which were once common in New England, but have now been subordinated by forestland and agriculture, or else have become industrial “meadows,” such as airports and landfills.

Grasslands serve as an important habitat for bird species. Many birds currently use the site year-round or as a stopover for migration, and many more will be attracted to it in the future as a result of careful design and management. Grassland plants were selected and organized in accordance with the needs of bird species that use the site.

The forest management strategy utilizes a macro approach to maximize biodiversity. In order to maintain a wide variety of habitats, we proposed selective logging in rotating plots over time. This approach establishes multiple stages of succession while maintaining the forest’s average age. The maintenance regime aims to support highest possible biodiversity and maximize the population count between all groups.

Mycoremediation is the cheapest and most effective strategy available for on-site decontamination. We proposed to use fungal materials both to decontaminate the site as well as to provide ongoing ecological benefits such as decomposing unwanted wood and supplying food to the community. We also designed a land use strategy using a land banking process, in which parcels of land are set aside for future development as transit-oriented housing adjacent to the existing commuter rail station. The sale of land and/or housing units will help fund the proposed ecological improvements to the site. The Ornithological Reserve is a public regional infrastructure that provides a unique opportunity to maintain grassland and forest for ecological enhancement and economic stimulation, while offering an educational and recreational destination to the public.

[in]Habitable Wall- Remake Thesis

Re-making is a process of redefinition: an opportunity to explore possibilities that were previously untapped.
In my redefinition of my previous housing project, I reiterated the concept of wall habitation and thread on three scales: the inhabitant, the apartment, and the building as a whole.
Living minimally in New York City is a challenge for housing design. The problem inspired me to reimagine the wall not only as something which defines the space we inhabit, but also as something with the potential to contain, extend, and express living space.
The program is defined around habitation requirements of light/air, storage, and resting. The wall becomes the canvas in which these three living necessities are programmatically delineated. The thinning and thickening of the wall creates pocket-spaces within which the kitchen and bathroom are contained.
As inhabitants move through the space and use interior walls to access different programmatic functions, the exterior wall shifts to accommodate these uses. The exterior wall is thus a dynamic body which transfers, projects, and imprints all living activities from inside to outside, resulting in a symbiotic relationship between wall and program.

[in]Habitable Wall

The basis of the project is adaptation and an imprinting of information onto surfaces. After the analysis of moveable, adaptable surfaces and surface complexities which create depth on a semi-flat surface, my ephemeral surface was created.
Its language is a translation of the occupants’ dialogue with the interior, which is projected outward. The street-front facade is alive to the rhythm and needs of the inhabitants. Its language is a result of light allowance, storage, resting, and space separation. The program’s organization provides the foundations for how the dialogue is translated. The translated usage is enigmatic to those outside. However, it is grasped only from within, by its users that create the esoteric text of the transitory narrative of habitation.