Iceland shifts to hydrogen economy

Posted: 12 December 2000

Amidst escalating signs of global climate change, Iceland has become the first country to undertake a shift to a hydrogen energy economy. If the project succeeds, the island nation expects to gain complete freedom from dependence on oil or coal by 2030. In doing so, it will also eliminate its main sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydrogen fuel cells, which Iceland will use to power electric cars, buses and boats, as well as to heat and light buildings, can be made from non-polluting, renewable energy sources - primarily geothermal and hydroelectric. While other countries don't have Iceland's abundant volcanic "vents" and waterfalls, most could turn to other renewables - such as wind, solar, or tidal - to achieve similar ends, says Seth Dunn, a research associate at the US-based Worldwatch Institute, who visited Iceland recently to investigate the country's plan.

He met with leaders of a new joint venture of the public and private sectors, who have made Iceland into what Dunn describes as a "39,000-square mile lab space for conducting their ambitious experiment." Iceland is currently dependent on imported oil for 38 per cent of its national energy use. Its plan is to reduce that dependence to zero.

Fuel cells are under rapid development throughout the industrial world, so Iceland will not be alone in its quest. But it is the first country to make a full commitment to a sustainable, non-polluting energy system of the kind needed to stabilise the global climate. "While other industrial countries agonise about their oil dependence and carbon dioxide omissions, Iceland is going ahead with the bold kind of change we're all going to have to face sooner or later," said Seth Dunn.

Fuel cells provide a solution to the problem of how to convert intermittent renewable sources like wind and sun into reliable power. By using the energy of thermal vents or falling water, it is possible - though the process of electrolysis - to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The energy can then be stored and transported, initially, in the form of hydrogen fuel cells and eventually through an infrastructure of hydrogen pipelines and fuelling stations.

Other countries may need to take an intermediate step, notes Dunn. "Because they have not developed their renewable energy resources as fully as Iceland has, they may first use natural gas as a 'bridge' to hydrogen, which can be extracted from natural gas as well as from water. "The ultimate step, though, is producing the hydrogen from renewable energy and delivering it through a hydrogen infrastructure - which is exactly the challenge Iceland is facing."

Like Iceland, the tiny South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is attempting to base its entire economy on renewable energy. In September, President John Bani appealed to international donors, renewable energy experts and regional organisations to help prepare a feasibility study for a hydrogen based renewable energy economy. Earlier in September, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific created a global research and development programme to assist small island developing countries in moving towards 100 per cent renewable energy economies.

Vanuatu wants to reach that goal by 2020 and is the first nation to respond to the UN's programme.

  • Iceland unveiled its plans for a fleet of hydrogen-powered fuel cell buses and a hydrogen filling station in Reykjavik, on March 1, 2001. When built three buses will operate on the Municipal Bus Corporation's normal service.

    Source: Worldwatch magazine, November/December 2000, published by the Worldwatch Institute.