Iceland’s Uniqueness Extends to Electricity

June 27, 2014 – Iceland, the westernmost country in Europe, is unique. Its geology is entirely volcanic, as it sits on the meeting place of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It has a unique language, with a 32-letter alphabet, based on Scandinavian, Saxon, and Celtic roots. Iceland had the first parliamentary system of government in history, dating to the 10th Century AD.

With a landmass of some 40,000 square miles and a population of only 320,000 (most of it concentrated in the capital of Reykjavik), Iceland is the most sparsely settled country in Europe. Fishing is the leading industry, followed by tourism, primary metal smelting, and farming.

The country is green in the summer months, although entirely covered by snow and ice in the winter. (Greenland, by contrast, is mostly ice-covered year-round). The country exists largely on its physical edge, as most of the inland is mountainous, covered by deep expanses of ice, and uninhabitable. Its largest glacier – technically an ice cap, with glaciers spreading out from the cap, geologist Tom Sharpe told me – is Vatnajökull, the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world. Vatnajökull alone covers an eighth of the surface of Iceland.

It follows from all of those unique circumstances that Iceland’s energy picture is also unique, as I discovered in a recent two-week circumnavigation of the country.

Iceland is the greenest of the world’s developed countries. Its electric system is essentially all renewable, a product of its geology and geography. Iceland gets all but a tiny slice of its electricity from geothermal and hydro power. There is no coal, natural gas, or nuclear generation, nor any wind or solar.

Iceland's only wind mill, last used to grind grain 100 years ago.

Iceland’s only wind mill, last used to grind grain 100 years ago.

A couple of tiny islands with a few residents generate power with diesel engines.

 

Geothermal energy is plentiful in Iceland

Geothermal energy is plentiful in Iceland

Geologically, Iceland is a giant teapot with heat from magma quite near the surface (some 2000 meters in some cases). There are many sites in the country where it is easy to tap superheated steam to reliably generate electricity and provide home heating at hot water at the same time. Drill a bore hole in many parts of Iceland and the result is a plume of useful energy, in the form of steam. Many farms in Iceland generate power from their own boreholes, as well as using steam to heat greenhouses to grow vegetables and flowers.

Then there is hydro. In winter – and there are

Water power is everywhere

Water power is everywhere

really only two seasons, winter and summer – Iceland has prodigious amounts of fast-flowing water, making hydro an easy generating proposition. The habitable portion of the island rings high volcanic cliffs, ridges and mountains, with thousands of cascading waterfalls.

So Iceland gets it electrical energy from the politically-incorrect renewables of hydro and geothermal. That means greenhouse gas are an afterthought and conventional pollutants – NOx, SOx, and rocks – are irrelevant.

On a per-capita basis, Iceland is the world’s largest electricity producer. Because of its enormous energy potential and its substantial excess of capacity, Iceland’s is attracting energy-intensive industries lately. Four large primary aluminum smelting plants have opened in the country over the past several years.

Iceland’s hefty electricity supply is also drawing interest from high-tech entrepreneurs who see a match between the country’s “clean” electricity and the enormous demands for electricity to supply computer server farms is the age of cloud computing. That’s the key to the business plan of GreenQloud, a Reykjavik start-up. Founder Eiríkur Hrafnsson created a stir last fall at a Seattle conference of cloud computing developers, where he gave a talk that argued that “the cloud is the new litter box.” He said, “The Cloud isn’t as green as you think it is. But it can be! All of your business data, photos, status updates, and even those funny cat memes generate CO2. A lot of it. So much so, that the IT industry is on track to overtake the auto and airline industry combined in total CO2 emissions, which has significant environmental and life implications.”

One final observation about some of the uniqueness of Iceland: there are no overhead electric or phone distribution lines. Every conduit from the transmission system to the residential or commercial is underground. That makes the capital of Reykjavik, as well as the smaller cities, towns and villages around Iceland look remarkably clean and uncluttered.