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Monday, 24 December, 2001, 22:09 GMT
Iceland launches energy revolution
Springs, Hirsch
Iceland is famed for its hot springs
By environment correspondent Tim Hirsch

In 1874 the science fiction writer Jules Verne envisaged a world in which water would replace coal as the fuel of the future.

Now the Icelanders believe they can turn that dream into reality within a generation - and they are taking the first steps next year in their project to create the world's first hydrogen society.

Iceland has already gone further than any other country in exploiting its abundant sources of renewable energy. Virtually all of its electricity and heating comes from hydroelectric power and the geo-thermal water reserves tapped from the hot rock layers lying just beneath the surface of this extraordinary island.

But with no fossil fuel resources of its own, the country relies on imported oil to power all its cars, buses and fishing trawlers, which provide 70% of its income.

Fuel cell key

Despite its natural advantages, the small population (around 270,000 people) produces more greenhouse gas emissions per head than any other country.

Trawler fleet, Hirsch
Iceland hopes to power its trawler fleet with hydrogen
So Iceland's next energy revolution will be based on converting its own renewable energy into a form that can power its own transport system, slashing those emissions and ending its dependence on fossil fuels completely.

The key to this change is the technology of fuel cells, in which electricity to power an engine can be generated by hydrogen and oxygen, with vehicle exhausts emitting only the most innocuous substance imaginable - water.

But producing the hydrogen economically without creating more pollution in the process is one of the stumbling blocks in turning fuel cells into a genuinely clean alternative, and this is where Iceland believes it has a head start.

It's about being independent and relying on ourselves to continue the way we live

Maria Maack
Iceland New Energy
The pioneer of the hydrogen society concept is Professor Bragi Arnason of the University of Iceland in Reykjavik - who has now earned himself the nickname "Professor Hydrogen".

He first put forward the idea of basing Iceland's economy on home-produced hydrogen back in the 1970s, and admits that at the time, people thought he was crazy. But politicians started to take a different attitude once major corporations started to visit his laboratories to hear more about his ideas.

The idea at the heart of the project is that Iceland can use its pollution-free, cheap electricity to "split" water into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen through the process of electrolysis, something it has already been doing for nearly 50 years at a plant producing ammonia for fertilisers.

"Many experts say that in 20 or 30 years, solar energy could be harnessed in an economic way and turned into electric energy," Professor Arnason said. "In Iceland we don't have to wait for solar energy to become economic because we have this cheap hydropower and geothermal energy. We can start now."

Steaming mountain, Hirsch
Iceland already harnesses the geo-thermal energy
With the creation of a hydrogen economy now official government policy, the first concrete step will be the arrival of the first emission-free fuel cell buses on Reykjavik's streets.

The idea is eventually to replace the capital's entire 80-strong fleet.

They will be fuelled at a new filling station being built on the outskirts of the city by Shell, one of three major corporations putting money into the project.

The hydrogen to power the buses will be produced on site, using clean electricity from the grid to split water.

Spirit of independence

The next stage will be the conversion of private cars on the island. Iceland's experts are also looking at the practicality of switching the huge trawlers that tie up at Reykjavik's fishing harbour to hydrogen power.

My grandchildren, when they are grown up, will live in this new economy where Iceland will be totally independent of imported energy

Bragi Arnason
The project director of Iceland New Energy, Maria Maack, said: "We are so reliant on our fisheries, and the fisheries are totally dependent on oil. So we have a chance to be quite independent of this. It's not about the environment so much, it's about being independent and relying on ourselves to continue the way we live."

That spirit of independence has already taken Iceland through two great energy revolutions in the past century.

First, it exploited its vast hydroelectric potential to make electricity from the start of the 20th Century, and then in the 1940s it tapped the geothermal water supplies which now provide all of Reykjavik's heating needs and about 10% of the country's electricity.

Professpr Arnason believes the third revolution is within sight.

"People my age will see the first steps towards the hydrogen economy. My children will watch the whole transformation," he predicted.

"My grandchildren, when they are grown, will live in this new economy where Iceland will be totally independent of imported energy, and where all the energy in the country comes from clean renewables."

See also:

11 Oct 01 | England
Ray of light for bus travel
24 Oct 00 | Africa
The car that runs on air
15 Jun 01 | Business
Shell explores alternative energy
08 Sep 00 | Business
Alternatives to oil
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