Since the beginning of the pandemic, self-sufficiency has become particularly noticeable in many households. Whether it is urban gardening or social agriculture projects, more and more useful plants are finding their way into gardens, balconies and onto the table. Self-sufficiency has not only become more important in agriculture, but also in the energy sector. Many companies use the local, natural conditions of their locations to generate energy – be it in the form of wind, water or sun. A prime example of this is Iceland. The youngest European island has switched its entire electricity and heat production to 100 percent hydropower and geothermal energy and supplies around 90 percent of Iceland’s households with geothermal heat (planet schule; planet wissen).
The island of geysers and glaciers, waterfalls and volcanoes uses the warmth of the volcanically active soil, the power of raging rivers and the dammed water of many lakes and can therefore obtain its energy predominantly from hydropower and geothermal energy. While the primary reasons were cost savings and independence from energy imports, the positive side effect for the environment and the climate are immense: Iceland’s CO2 emissions are at 6.06 t per inhabitant due to the regenerative energy generation and therefore significantly lower than in other European countries (Stiftung Energie & Klimaschutz). An existing pipeline network, high local wind strengths and a low population density in the region further simplify the use of renewable energies. In geothermal power plants, hot steam and hot water from volcanic layers are used to generate electricity or to heat houses. Iceland’s water abundance and geothermal energy have made the island to one of the wealthiest nations in the world (planet schule).
And the idea behind it is not new: Since Greek philosophy, the four elements earth, air, fire and water have been regarded to as the basis of our being and of modern natural sciences. How can we make use of these elements? How do they relate to each other? And which elements can contribute to self-sufficiency?
The element earth stands for biodiversity: It provides food for all living beings as well as mineral resources. It is an energy supplier: from dried peat used as a fuel, to fossil fuels such as crude oil, natural gas or coal. However, the extraction and use of fossil energies threaten the existence of our earth by emitting carbon dioxide and thus increasing global warming. Instead, renewable energy sources such as wind energy, solar systems and hydropower plants serve as clean and sustainable alternatives to fossil energy production. Additionally, the earth itself provides a climate-friendly alternative in the energy sector: Energy can be generated naturally with biomass. At the same time, the earth’s natural cycle – growth and decay – continues uninterrupted (Grünes Geld).
A further great energy source is geothermal or solar energy, which leads to the element fire. With the sun’s energy potential being almost inexhaustible, scientists assume that the sun’s energy reserves will only be used up in around five billion years (Grünes Geld). For example, the automotive manufacturer SEAT uses this clean and renewable energy supplier at its factory SEAT al Sol on an area of 276,000 square meters with 53,000 photovoltaic modules on the roofs of the production halls and covered parking spaces. In this way, the plant generates 17 million kilowatt hours of its own electricity per year – without any emissions – and saves around 4.5 thousand tons of CO2 annually (SEAT).
71 percent of the earth is covered by water, the element that is one of the basic requirements of our being. It quenches thirst, ensures good growth in agriculture and gives water to animals. Waterways connect trading centers and create important conditions for several industries. In Germany, the average water requirement is around 130 liters per inhabitant per day, but only around two liters are used for food and drinks, the rest of the water consumption is for showers, toilets, washing machines and other household appliances. Given that only three percent of the earth’s water is fresh water and only one percent is available as drinking water, the adequate supply of the world’s population with clean drinking water and access to basic sanitation is one of the greatest challenges of our time. However, water can make an important contribution to clean and climate-friendly energy generation: hydropower plants are an important part of renewable energies, which are cost-effective, efficient and keep the interference with nature very low (Grünes Geld).
Another basic element is air. Without air, no life is possible. Air and wind ensure movement and changes in nature. Wind power plants are a proven technology that has been refined more and more over the past centuries: wind turbines have become more efficient, larger and higher; the energy obtained can be stored and fed into the increasingly powerful networks. In Germany, around 28,000 wind turbines currently generate 14.5 percent of the country’s electricity consumption (Grünes Geld).
Although the four-element theory has existed for thousands of years, Iceland seems to be one of the few examples that make use of precisely these four elements – in the most natural, environmentally friendly and inexpensive way.
by Marie Klimczak