REYKJAVIK, ICELAND-The president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, is a patrician figure with a mane of white hair that got him branded in China, where he is a frequent visitor, the "Silver Fox."
"I've just come from China," he said in opening Reykjavik's Driving Sustainability 2010 conference. "It's inspiring to see that they are now aggressively engaged in changing their country from a fossil-fuel-dependent society to one that will become, in 20 years time, the number one clean energy country in the world. They will do it on a scale that, in 20 years, will shame us in the West."
Although we don't hear about them in the West, Grimsson said that China has had 50,000 public demonstrations related to the country's degraded environment. So the clean energy plan is on one level an act of self-preservation.
"Everybody breathes, everybody gets a sore throat, everybody gets stuck in the fossil fuel traffic," Grimsson said. With the Chinese example fresh in his mind, Grimsson pointed to Iceland's "100 percent success in geothermal heating and clean electricity production," and called the next step green transportation, with the goal of becoming "the first country to move over to 100 percent clean energy for all land-based activity."
This is feasible in Iceland in a way it is in very few other places, because the country has the aforementioned cheap green electricity in abundance. Eighty five percent of homes are heated with geothermal, and 100 percent of electricity (70 percent hydro, 30 percent geothermal) is renewable.
With a little time off, I was able to visit a geothermal hot spot, one of the test holes that Reykjavik Energy has dug for eventual connection to the grid. It was an awe-inspiring experience. Here's the video:
What Iceland has lacked, and still lacks, is access to electric cars to plug into the clean grid. That conundrum stalled an earlier plan to create the world's first hydrogen-based energy economy, and it's been an issue with electrics, too--a memorandum of understanding with Mitsubishi to deliver i-MiEV plug-in cars has so far brought in only two or three vehicles that are in use by government ministers and consumer tests. But there's evidence that the problem will be addressed as a new company, Even (a spinoff of Northern Lights Energy) prepares to take delivery of a fleet of 20 Smith Electric Vehicle delivery trucks. Also on order: 100 Reva EVs from India, and, due in 2012, 1,000 Tesla Model S cars.
Grimsson said that "the cities are where the battle will be lost or won," and that's why companies like BMW are preparing electric "megacity vehicles" for urban combat. Reykjavik is a sprawling, low-rise city with an air of clean prosperity that is a bit deceiving, belying as it does the deep financial shock that ran through every aspect of Icelandic society in 2008. "We have a saying when anyone displays wealth," Sturla Sighvatsson of Even told me. "That's so 2007."
Many of Reykjavik's car dealerships are owned by the government and the banks, and new car sales have plunged an amazing 80 to 90 percent. People who took out car loans in foreign currency found themselves owing double.
After a day of conference speeches on the urgency of clean cars for Iceland, the group repaired to a restaurant, where a bunch of us were transfixed by an out-of-time Mercury Cougar muscle car idling in the parking lot.
Petur Haraldsson, executive chairman of FTO Sustainable Solutions and the conference organizer, was among the group. "That engine was bird song to my ears, like newly mown grass. The car was a beautiful piece of art, and it proved to me that I'm an addict. The first thing I do in the morning is look for my car keys. But mobility is more than just internal-combustion cars. I admit that I'm an addict, but I don't want to be one anymore." Haraldsson is impatient about it, too, wanting to see Iceland go fossil-fuel-free by 2020. That Cougar exhaust note may not be echoing in the ancient streets of Reykjavik much longer. What's great about 2010 is that we can set ambitious goals for 2020," he said. "What are we waiting for?"
There's clear evidence that Reykjavik can shake off its financial lethargy, and clean cars may be one of the main catalysts.
Learn more about geothermal heating and cooling anyone can take advantage of.
Pictured: President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson of Iceland.
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