Iceland: From pioneer to laggard

Borehole for geothermal energy in Iceland, © ON Power, Iceland.

Iceland was quick to recognise the opportunities offered by hydrogen and fuel cells for the transport sector – but has unfortunately made little of them to date. At the end of the last millennium, the Nordic island was regarded as a pioneer in the field of hydrogen, because it considered the vision of a sustainable hydrogen economy to be quite feasible.

For decades, the country’s energy supply with heat and electricity has been covered by the country’s existing renewable energy sources of hydropower and geothermal energy. Only Icelandic transport, including shipping, is still dependent on fossil fuels, which have to be imported at high cost. Electric mobility is struggling, although Icelanders have been working with fuel cell vehicles since the end of the 1990s. Reykjavik was one of the first twelve cities in the world to use fuel cell buses in public transport as part of European demonstration projects in the early 2000s and to produce and supply hydrogen from renewable sources.

But then the financial and economic crisis came in 2008, and in Iceland not one stone was left unturned. Although politics has never abandoned the topic of hydrogen and fuel cell mobility, the island state has had to realign itself following these radical changes and see to it that the country can cope with its horrendous debts and get back on its feet.

Iceland’s renewable energies were and are the best way to grow with them. Geothermal energy and hydropower supply 80 percent of the country’s required energy around the clock, regardless of the weather. The remaining 20 percent of the energy requirement is covered by imported fuels for transport by land, sea and air.

Iceland made a name for itself at the end of the last century by fully announcing the conversion of its energy supply to hydrogen. After a few initial demonstration projects, however, the Nordic country has now become quiet about this issue.

Iceland took its first major step towards a sustainable energy economy between 1945 and 1970 by using geothermal energy as a source of electrical energy and heat and shutting down the last coal-fired power station. Twenty years ago, one kilowatt hour of electricity from hydropower cost just under three cents. Icelanders nevertheless cover around 30 percent of their annual energy consumption with mineral oil. More than half of the total 850,000 tonnes per year are consumed by the fishing fleet, the other half by road (three out of four Icelanders own a car). However, the required oil must be imported.

read more in H2-international October 2019

Alexandra Huss

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