Eliminating fossil fuels: Iceland's transition from coal and oil to geothermal district heating, 1930-1980

O. Melsted*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Between 1930 and 1980, Iceland's heating sector was decarbonized,as geothermal district heating utilities became the common form of heating. The 'elimination' of fuels in heating, as Icelanders called it,entailed the replacement of imported coal and oil with domestically available geothermal energy. Analyzing which natural, technological, social and economic factors helped - or hindered - the breakthrough of geothermal heating, I examine three phases: (1) the construction of the first urban geothermal utility in Reykjavik in 1930-1944, (2) the following phase of largely unsuccessful attempts to build similar utilities in the rest of the country, and (3) the complete elimination of fuels in heating during the 1970s. The central argument is that the shift to geothermal heating depended on geothermal resources being made available by applying suitable technologies and the societal will to both abandon the predominant forms of heating with fuels and invest in the construction of geothermal infrastructures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)527-547
Number of pages21
JournalHistory and technology
Issue number4
Early online date4 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Iceland
  • geothermal energy
  • district heating
  • space heating
  • utilities
  • coal
  • oil
  • electricity
  • decarbonization
  • energy transition
  • oil price crisis

Cite this