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A green lesson from Iceland

Since the 1970s, Iceland has gone from relying on imported coal for 75 percent of its energy to getting more than 82 percent of its energy from geothermal and hydro power.

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Along with its power station’s tourist attractions, Iceland has placed itself at the forefront of renewable energy technology, commodifying its green know-how and exporting it to countries around the world from China and the Philippines, to Canada and Germany.

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An Icelandic geothermal developer, Geysir Green Energy, operates a district heating system for the Chinese city of Xianyang, heating a million square miles of housing. The new system has allowed China to demolish two obsolete, coal-fired heating stations.

While the private sector has begun exporting its geothermal expertise abroad, Iceland still must confront its continued use of fossil fuel before it can attain complete zero emissions status.

But the commitment to making this change is palpable. “We see Iceland as the world’s laboratory for a decarbonized future,” Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Iceland’s foreign minister, said last year.

Transportation: The final challenge

The fly in Iceland’s fossil-fuel-free ointment remains its transportation system. Cars, buses, and the country’s sizable fleet of fishing ships all depend on imported oil and gas.

Well, almost all of them. In the middle of Reykjavík’s car dealership neighborhood, Höfdi, motorists can find the world’s first commercial hydrogen fueling station, which opened in 2003.

The station was originally installed as part of a pilot program for three, monstrous Daimler-Benz Citaro buses with Ballard fuel cells that silently cruised Reykjavík’s streets and belched out nothing but steam. While the buses left at the end of the pilot program, the station remains. Hertz in Iceland now rents out three of 10 Priuses retrofitted to run off hydrogen fuel. Even one of the city’s whale-watching boats has been customized to burn hydrogen.

But instead of waiting for the mass production of hydrogen engines, the country has teamed up with its fellow island nation on the other side of world, Japan, to make Iceland the first European nation to drive Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV electric cars.

Singing the praises of Iceland’s preexisting energy infrastructure to fuel a nation of electric cars, Minister Skarphédinsson has also announced plans for a network of “multifuel” stations around the island, which will offer, apart from conventional fuels, hydrogen and methane fuels as well as recharging facilities for electric cars.

“We are participating in the great idea of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ... who talks about a hydrogen highway from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” says Skarphédinsson.

Economic meltdown

When asked whether the nation’s recent financial meltdown will have a detrimental effect on Iceland’s plans for decarbonization, Skarphédinsson says, “If you look at the very short term we’re already reducing emissions, we’re driving less because no one has the money to buy gas!”

However, if the nation’s lofty plans for a decarbonized society pan out, Icelanders may never have to worry about buying gas again.