Saturday, August 07, 2010

Iceland a volcanic wonderland with all renewable energy

(Photo of Strokkurd geyser erupting, as it does every few minutes at Geysir Hot Springs Area in southern Iceland. Photo by Sabrina Linton)

I just got back from a trip to Iceland with my grandchildren Bryan and Sabrina. The pristine island nation is hauntingly beautiful in a volcano-y, geothermally, green-mossy sort of way. There's very little pollution. If all the world were like Iceland we wouldn’t have to worry about climate change.

Blessed with plenty of natural hydro and geothermal energy, the country derives virtually all of its electric power from renewable sources. It fuels 90% of its heating and 25% of its electricity with the geothermal power simmering below its surface and has 7 geothermal power plants, 6 of them currently operational. Hydroelectric power fuels the balance.

Iceland is in a race with France, Israel and others to change over to electric vehicles supported by a nationwide EV charging network. Northern Lights Energy Co. hopes to make Iceland the first country in the world to have a national electric charging grid, which is very possible because of the scarcity of roads. Iceland could service the entire island with 20 well-placed charging stations.

Iceland is also using hydrogen for power. There was a charging station at the harbor and the whale-watching boat we went on was powered by hydrogen.

The fruits and vegetables are mostly organic and livestock aren’t fed antibiotics, our guide told us. Much of what Icelanders eat comes out of the sea, with fishing as its main industry. (No runaway oil wells muddying the waters here.) Low-cost geothermal energy has led to a healthy greenhouse industry, where salad greens, tomatoes, bananas and such are grown indoors. We ate bananas there, assuming had been shipped a long, long way. Maybe not!

This tiny country with just over 300,000 people does have a huge advantage when it comes to pollution from power use. The don’t need much of it.

Of course there are disadvantages to living on a volcanic island. Eyjafjallajökull (I think I can finally pronounce it), the volcano that erupted several months ago, was lying dormant again – at least for now – but caused quite a bit of damage with its ash, which covered farms in the area, requiring evacuation of livestock. The real threat, however, is Vatnajökull, which in the past has followed its smaller sibling and would blow up Europe’s largest ice cap, likely causing deadly floods.

Iceland is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world. Proximity of the Gulf Stream keeps it milder in winter than New York or Toronto. Yet in summer, despite its 24 hours of daylight, high temps are usually in the high 50s or low 60s. We had one warmer day, when it was unusually sunny and in the low 70s, nice enough to have dinner at a sidewalk café in Reykjavik. Another day when we went close to the huge Vatna glacier and rode in a boat among icebergs on a glacial lagoon, we nearly froze. But it was nice to beat the heat back home for a week!

(Sources: GEA International Market Report May 2010, Globetrotter Travel Guide to Iceland, The Daily Green, BBC)

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