Green Economies and Iceland
Skogafoss is one of Iceland’s many beautiful waterfalls (photo by Hansueli Krapf)
Tiny Iceland is a world leader when it comes to renewable energy and that is thanks to a few politicians who had the foresight, 100 years ago, to recognize that its energy resources would be key to its future prosperity. His Excellency Hlynur Guðjónsson, Ambassador of Iceland, was kind enough so speak to us about Iceland’s green economy via Zoom from Missoula, Montana, where he was on vacation. The Ambassador’s sincere respect for those early Icelandic politicians was very apparent as was his pride in Iceland’s stature as a world leader in the development of renewable energy.
This tiny country with a population of only 360,000 is a “small powerhouse” as he put it, in the use of natural resources. Hydro and geothermal power have transformed Iceland into one of the world’s most advanced societies. 90% of its energy needs are now met by renewable resources and it is working to transition to renewable energy sources for its transportation needs as well.
The use of hydro power was established very early in Iceland. Historically, peat was burned for heating and cooking. Peat was gradually supplemented and then replaced by imported coal and kerosene. The first hydropower station started up in 1904, followed by two more in the early 1920’s. Many small local generation stations were built around the country before the first large hydro power plant was built in the 1950’s. Iceland’s engineering and energy companies now use the most up-to-date methods to build hydro plants that result in a very small carbon footprint. The quality of hydro transmission is key, noted the Ambassador, and the associated infrastructure is highly resilient. Icelandic companies also have very current expertise in refurbishing old hydro plants.
However it is not hydro power but geothermal power that now heats most homes in Iceland. The Ambassador showed us a short video that explained, using very clear graphics, how hot water underground is accessed by drilling holes that send it to nearby geothermal plants, from where some is sent directly to homes for heating and hot water, and the rest is used to generate electricity. He recounted his boyhood memories of whole streets being dug up for the switch from oil and gas heating to geothermal in the 1970’s, when the energy crisis inspired the Icelandic government to make the change. He emphasized the significant improvement in quality of life that resulted.
Many downstream benefits also result from geothermal energy. It is used to heat greenhouses to grow fruit (including bananas!) and vegetables. Vertical farming is also now underway thanks to geothermal energy. In vertical farming, sunlight is not a factor as the entire growing environment is controlled indoors. LED lights and timed watering and fertilizing create an efficient use of space, energy, and resources.
Another downstream benefit is an algae producing facility that uses CO2 captured from a nearby geothermal plant. Algae is used in the food supplement industry and to supply fish hatcheries and aquaculture. It is highly efficient as fish food and reduces waste. It also allows for the production of foreign fish species.
The production of “green hydrogen,” meaning hydrogen produced from clean renewable energy sources, and “E-fuels”, which are synthetic fuels made by storing energy from renewable sources in the chemical bonds of liquid or gas fuels, are being developed as additional opportunities to decarbonize Iceland’s economy.
Iceland strives to balance energy use with respect for nature. Every resource stream that enters a power plant is seen as valuable. The goal is to use it all, without wasting any in the process. Iceland’s expertise in best practices that go hand in hand with environmental protection is now being exported to foreign markets.
Participants had interesting questions for the Ambassador, wondering about the potential for Canada’s isolated northern communities to benefit from Iceland’s expertise, and about geothermal energy’s potential in other parts of the world. Ambassador Guðjónsson had encouraging things to say about Canada’s northern communities and the energy opportunities that could benefit them based on Iceland’s experiences. His in-depth knowledge of geothermal and other renewable resources was impressive and made for an enjoyable and educational event.
Iceland’s Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant (photo by Stuart Thornton)