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Iceland: One Island’s Sprint Toward Energy Independence

A hydogen-powered Prius in Iceland
A hydogen-powered Prius in Iceland.

I step on the gas pedal and whip through the streets of Reykjavik, in a rental car that makes me feel far less guilty than usual. This one is a hydrogen-powered Toyota Prius hybrid. I cannot help but think this seems perfectly natural. The car is quiet and nothing comes out of the tailpipe, but it drives just like a regular little car. Later I visit a filling station. There are gas pumps, a methane “biogas” pump for the city’s garbage trucks, and a hydrogen pump for cars like these.

The most impressive part though, is that this is all part of a bigger plan, a plan to make Iceland the first truly eco-friendly nation, a country that can really mean it when it says it wants “to wean itself off foreign oil.”

Iceland is swimming in energy. This is a county that has so much energy coming out of the ground that they can heat the ocean in the summer. If you visit at the right time of year, you can bask on the beach and then swim in warm seawater like you were vacationing in the Caribbean. Excess hot water from geothermal energy production is pumped back into the sea. Never mind that you are taking a dip near the Arctic Circle. When hot water is there for the taking, nature be damned.

Iceland’s history is a mixture of tales about castoffs and hearty explorers taking on the elements to control their own destiny. As the world wrings its hands over how to evolve from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, Iceland is way ahead of the game. If you want to travel somewhere to get a view of the future, this little island up in an Arctic no-man’s land is your ticket.

But it is dark almost all day in the winter—how can they do solar? And wind power? Surely they do not want to muck up their pristine landscape, or impose on Europe’s largest glacier.

Well, Iceland can mostly ignore those options. It has a secret weapon: geothermal.

Energy under your feet

If you turn on a hot water tap in a home in Iceland, there is no water heater tucked away in a closet or basement. Instead there is a network of pipes bringing hot water to the surface from under the ground, where volcanic activity does its work without requiring any additional energy. Mix in some cold water somewhere to bring it down from boiling and you’re all set.

That is nice, but the real payoff is electricity. Geothermal power plants are about as close as you can get to “perpetual motion” machines. The factories pump seawater into the ground, where the hot earth turns it to steam. That steam powers turbines, which generate electricity. Some of that electricity flows back to the pumps, completing the circle. The rest goes out to the grid, supplying 80 percent of the country’s energy needs. Nine out of every ten buildings on the island are powered by geothermal, the rest of the homes generally being too remote to reach. 

There is plenty of hot earth in this land of hot springs and volcanoes, so these electricity generators are no supplemental affairs: the newest ones can generate 200 megawatts of electricity—more than what comes out of a typical nuclear plant.

Unlike nuclear, however, there is not much waste to worry about. The resourceful Icelanders have even turned one waste pool into a tourist attraction: the Blue Lagoon. This warm, silica-filled salty lake is like a giant Milk of Magnesia bath, supposedly having all kinds of benefits for your skin and presenting an unearthly hot springs experience. The fact that it’s right next to a steaming power plant doesn’t seem to bother anyone and the cosmetics dispensed from the Blue Lagoon clinic are high-end wonder goop.

Swimming in a blue lagoon in Iceland.
Swimming in a blue lagoon.

More Car-Happy Than the Americans

Human nature being what it is, if you get something for almost nothing—in this case hot water and electricity—you tend to make up for it by spending that money somewhere else. In Iceland’s case, they have been spending it on more cars and bigger cars. Whereas Europe proper is dominated by small, fuel-efficient cars, Iceland’s roads look like those in rural America: filled with SUVs and power-hungry V6 sedans. “We have more cars per capita than any country in Europe,” said my guide with a derisive scowl. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve caught up with you all since the last set of stats were put together.”

Iceland’s recent economic problems have certainly put a crimp in the “bigger is better” ethos. Since the country’s currency has tumbled, imported gasoline is more expensive and so are the vehicles themselves. The most skeptical locals will probably now look at sustainable solutions more seriously, just as the rise in gas prices changed U.S. buying habits in a hurry.

Going Electric

Help is on the way anyway, with plans that were thankfully put in place when Iceland was still firing on all cylinders. The hydrogen car I have had been driving was sort of a test, along with a fleet of hydrogen buses that were phased out after the contract expired. The problem with hydrogen is, it takes a lot of energy to produce and store it. So while it’s “clean energy” in the end, it takes plenty of dirty energy to get there.

Enter the electric car, for real this time. In 2010, a fleet of Mitsubishi electric cars will join a few experimental plug-in hybrid models currently using a series of charging stations downtown and at shopping malls. In a land where 90 percent of commutes are less than 40 miles, a car that can go 50 miles on a charge is not much of an inconvenience. With plans for widespread charging stations throughout the country, Iceland has a far better chance than most nations to make a program like this a success in a hurry.

The rental car fleet will switch over quickly and the locals will probably get an incentive to give that hulking SUV a pass: proposed taxes on the electric cars will be zero, while the behemoths will incur a 60 percent levy.

That’s just the start, however. Maybe when you visit Iceland in a few years, you will be able to rent something more budget-friendly: a rechargeable electric scooter.

For More Information

Iceland’s Driving Sustainability Organization

Icelandic Tourist Board

TIM LEFFEL is the author of some classic books on budget travel and travel writing. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.

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