REYKJAVIK, ICELAND--It's easy to get inspired by the clean, bracing air of this very northern city, just 200 miles below the Arctic Circle. Though the vista was once black with coal smoke, today there isn't a fossil fuel-burning power plant in sight.
Iceland gets its energy from two sources: hydroelectric plants and geothermal, an abundant resource in a country (the size of England without Wales) geologically situated at the fault line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
There are 15 active volcanoes in Iceland, and geysers such as "Strokkur" that erupt with boiling hot water every few minutes. "Geysir" is, in fact, an Icelandic word, entering international lexicons along with "Bjork" and "Sigur Ros."
Iceland's Blue Lagoon: a geothermal byproduct. (Blue Lagoon photo)
Iceland has become a clean energy model, and it could become more of one if its plans for a hydrogen economy are realized. In a system that's hard to visualize unless you see it for yourself: above-ground pipelines carrying super-heated water from geothermal plants to heat 87 percent of Iceland's homes (and providing most of their hot water, too). By 2004, 17 percent of Iceland's electricity was geothermal-based, with the rest clean hydro. By 2007, it had 421 megawatts of electricity generation from geothermal, and so much excess capacity for the needs of the country's 300,000 people that 75 percent was going to power aluminum production (the one dirty secret of Iceland's energy picture).
In fact, the construction of new power plants has begun to generate significant opposition in Iceland, particularly because new hydro for electricity and an expanded aluminum industry will flood large areas in the country's stark but pristine landscape.
Electricity from the new $3 billion Karahnjukar hydro plant will be mostly consumed by a new Alcoa aluminum smelter. Alcoa says its Icelandic aluminum production is the lowest emission of its kind in the world, but that hardly assuages critics such as Bjork, who calls it "crazy" (her activist mother has even staged a hunger strike).
Thora Ellen Thorhallsdottir of the Institute of Biology at the University of Iceland says that if all the geothermal and hydroelectric plants planned in Iceland are built they would affect or flood three percent of the country's land mass. "This is the largest wilderness area in Europe, much of it never inhabited by humans," she says.
That's the downside. The upside is an impressive plan to convert to hydrogen not only the country's many cars (vehicle ownership per capita is probably similar to the U.S., and SUVs are favored for the rugged countryside), but also the fishing fleet that is 60 percent of the country's economy.
This Daimler fuel cell bus was recently taken out of service. (Jim Motavalli)
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