How Iceland switched to green energy

Reykjavik, Iceland in winter- BENEDICT LOPEZ, 2012

COP 26, the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, recently ended in Glasgow with commitments made by many countries.

World leaders and climate change officials from over 100 countries, which account for about 85% of the world’s forests, pledged to stop deforestation by 2030.

Many countries have also pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, while others have called for a much longer period. Hopefully most countries will honor their commitments.

It is a noble goal to which countries must subscribe, but not impossible if the world community makes a sincere and concerted effort to tackle this critical problem facing humanity.

Reducing deforestation is essential to curb climate change. Trees and other plants absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), a key greenhouse gas responsible for global warming.

Global sea levels are rising at an unprecedented rate. The increase in 2020 was 91.3 mm (3.6 inches) above the 1993 average. This record was set despite closures in many countries, the suspension of economic activities and minimal air flights for many months.

Sea level has risen more rapidly in the past hundred years than at any time in the past 3,000 years. This increase will continue if no drastic measures are taken. A further 15-25cm increase in greenhouse gas emissions is expected by 2050, the target year for countries to become carbon neutral.

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Rising sea levels threaten a string of islands in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The next wave of refugees may well be environmental refugees.

Time is running out and countries around the world must make concerted efforts to implement sustainable energy solutions. Tiny Iceland offers a unique model. Almost all of the electricity used in this small Nordic country of 360,000 inhabitants comes from renewable energies.

Iceland can take pride in the fact that nine out of ten houses are heated directly with geothermal energy, mainly from the Hellisheidi power station. It is one of the largest in the world geothermal power plants, located just 25 km (15 miles) from Reykjavik.

Geothermal spa, Blue Lagoon in winter: swimming is possible here even at the height of winter – BENEDICT LOPEZ, 2012

Currently, Iceland’s energy needs are largely met by green energy sources, hydraulic and geothermal. From providing heat to meeting the needs of different economic sectors, green energy is used. (Fossil fuels are used in the transportation sector.)

Outside of residential and industrial uses, geothermal energy is widely used to melt snow on walkways, heat swimming pools, power fish farms and greenhouses, and process food. It is also used to produce cosmetic products, such as products from the famous Icelandic geothermal spa, the Blue Lagoon.

Lessons along the way

In the early 1970s, when it was considered a developing country, Iceland drew its energy from imported fossil fuels.

What made this little nation take a different course? Volatile fluctuations in oil prices in global energy markets. Iceland quickly needed stable and economically viable domestic energy sources for its people and industry.

Today, the nation is a model in producing green energy to power its modern economy. For centuries, geothermal energy has only been used for washing and bathing. Only a few megawatts were used to generate electricity at the 20e Century.

Local entrepreneurs embarked on renewable energy initiatives with geothermal and hydropower at the start of the 20e Century.

The wider use of geothermal energy originated when a farmer found a way to use hot water seeping from the ground to develop a primitive geothermal heating system for his farm. Gradually, municipalities developed a more efficient way to explore the available geothermal resources.

The Writer in Reykjavik at Sunset in Winter – BENEDICT LOPEZ, 2012

Oil industry drilling technology was used to drill deeper to get hotter water that could heat more homes. Larger projects were then developed with the application of geothermal district heating systems on a commercial scale.

To expand the use of geothermal energy, the Icelandic government established a geothermal drilling mitigation fund in the late 1960s. Loans were made for geothermal research and test drilling, while the Cost recovery was ensured for failed projects.

This expansion proved to be a boon for households: many of them could now connect their homes to the geothermal district heating network and stop using fossil fuels.

Iceland has also focused on large-scale hydropower development, which has attracted large international industrial users of energy. The aim was to diversify the economy by attracting new industries, creating jobs and building a nationwide electricity grid.

Successful measures

Iceland’s success in green evolution shows how its measures overcame obstacles in the transition to renewable energy:

  1. Tripartite cooperation between all stakeholders – municipalities, government and the public – during the early stages of the transition propelled the evolution
  • Local municipalities in Iceland engaged and learned from innovative entrepreneurs about geothermal and hydropower concepts and realized their value
  • Iceland has put in place a strong legal and regulatory framework, with incentives, to stimulate the development of green energy. The Icelandic Drilling Mitigation Fund has accelerated the conversion by lowering the risks municipalities face when undertaking geothermal projects.
  • As with industrial development, sound long-term planning and policies for the implementation of renewable energies are vital. The government has undertaken a master plan process including stakeholders for the future development of renewable energies
  • Public participation at every stage of the implementation was essential. Municipalities that have gained regular access to geothermal hot water have become powerful role models for others. Politicians took advantage of this by showing photos and other evidence to voters so they could compare the use of geothermal energy and fossil fuels. In this way, politicians explained to people how they can get cleaner air through the use of geothermal energy.

Iceland is today a leader in geothermal technical assistance and renewable energy education.

More than 1,000 experts from all over the world have studied geothermal methods in Iceland since 1979. These courses are offered through United Nations geothermal training programs and at higher education institutions, such as the Icelandic School of Energy. from the University of Reykjavík.

The Icelandic energy industry has also been involved in geothermal projects in over 50 countries and continues to be very active around the world.

Model for the rest of the world

Iceland is an inspiring story of what is possible. It’s a story that provides many essential lessons for countries looking to switch from fossil fuels to renewables.

The country is a poignant reminder that not only rich developed countries but even the smallest can overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of a green evolution.

Iceland is an invaluable role model for countries in transition to a more sustainable future.

Developing and developed countries alike need committed and determined leadership to realize the critical need to boost the transition to renewable energy. Knowing the country, I am optimistic that Iceland can help other countries on this path for the greater good of mankind.

Each country’s approach is unique and its transition will be different. Iceland’s conversion is an impressive achievement, but it is the “Icelandic experience” – not a model that can be roughly replicated.

Yet it is a remarkable achievement in every way for this small island nation with a small population – one that other nations can learn from.

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