Jonas Moody
The Svartsengi geothermal plant in southwest Iceland churns out clouds of water vapor. Even up close to the stacks, there is only the slightest tinge of sulfur in the air.
Bob Strong/Reuters
The Blue Lagoon hot spring in Grindavik is filled with runoff water from the Svartsengi geothermal power plant.

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.

Both US presidential candidates have called for an end to America’s dependence on foreign oil and more investment in renewable resources, but even Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama said his plan to stop using Middle Eastern oil might sound like “pie in the sky” talk.

Calls for greater energy independence date back to President Richard Nixon. Yet since then, the amount of foreign oil imported by the US has more than doubled.

But since the 1970s, Iceland, just 3,000 miles off the US East Coast, has gone from relying on imported coal for 75 percent of its energy to, as of 2007, getting more than 82 percent of its energy from geothermal and hydropower. Oil accounts for only 16 percent of its energy needs and is used only to power cars and its fishing fleet.

“It’s our goal to be a carbon-free and oil-free country by 2050,” says Össur Skarphédinsson, Iceland’s minister of industry and energy.

These days in Iceland, little is certain. In just the past few months, the economy has imploded, the currency bottomed out, and job security is nil. Despite all of the economic turmoil, Iceland can rely on its energy.

As the rest of the world struggles amid the economic meltdown, Iceland may offer lessons about the value and attainability of energy independence.

Located on the mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American plate and the Eurasian plate are furiously pulling apart, the island is home to 320,000 imperturbable souls who put up with arguably the most rambunctious 40,000 square miles of ground on the face of the Earth.

Frequently jostled by tectonic movements – like May’s earthquake, which measured a magnitude of 6.3 – Icelanders grin and bear it, knowing that with the curse of tremors comes the blessing of intense geothermic activity: over 200 volcanoes, 600 hot springs, and 20 high-temperature steam fields.

With no coal, no petroleum reserves, and not even trees, the practical islanders have been warming themselves with geothermal heat for centuries.

A long history of green power

Texts from as early as the 12th century mention chieftains meeting and making important decisions from the comfort of their natural hot tubs.

But it wasn’t until the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Iceland found itself dependent on imported coal for 75 percent of its energy, that the pragmatist nation decided to shift their energy focus to harnessing the island’s steaming soil and raging rivers to generate the majority of its power.

Now there’s such a surplus of cheap, renewable energy in the country that entire streets and parking lots are heated in the winter just to keep them de-iced.

The smell of green energy

From the amount of exhaust billowing out of the Svartsengi power plant on the Reykjanes Peninsula, one might expect the air to be soured with noxious fumes. But even up close there is only the slightest tinge of sulfur in the air. This is the smell of green energy. The stacks only churn out clouds of water vapor.

Abutting the geothermal power plant is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions: the Blue Lagoon.

Although the site’s engineers have tried to obscure the plant from the bathers’ line of sight, one can just make out the tallest of the silvery exhaust stacks from the pool.

What most of the lagoon bathers don’t realize is that they’re swimming in the plant’s runoff water, rich with minerals and a surreal shade of milky blue.

Marketing green energy

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.

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.

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