If this were a fairytale, we’d begin by telling the story of a small island far north on the map, covered in volcanoes and glaciers, and inhabited by fewer people than a large mainland city. The name of the island is Iceland –it means land of ice, yet it’s also well-known for its fire, with geysers erupting from its restless subsoil. For centuries, Iceland has been one of the poorest European nations, a land of fisherfolk and farmers. Until the 1970s, it was classified as a developing country by the United Nations Development Programme. It derived 85% of its electricity from coal imported from abroad, and its debt-to-GDP ratio was strongly affected by the expenses incurred for supplying power to its 330,000 inhabitants and its production activities.
The energy revolution
Today all that has changed, as the Icelandic government manages to meet its own energy needs: 73% of the energy used in the country is generated by power plants, while 27% is provided by geothermal energy. To give an idea of the tangible impact this change has prompted, it’s enough to know that, over ten years, spending money on local power suppliers rather than purchasing coal abroad has allowed the government to keep in its coffers an amount equivalent to half of its GDP.
The use of a pipeline system channelling hot water from the ground to households marked a significant turning point, as nine Icelandic homes out of ten are now heated in a fully sustainable manner. Moreover, geothermal energy is widely used to melt the snow on pavements, heat up swimming pools, power fish farms, greenhouses and food processing plants, as well as to manufacture cosmetics. Even the needs of energy-intensive industries are met by renewable sources. The only exception is the country’s dependence on fossil fuels for transport.
Getting to know Iceland
The island is situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates –a very active volcanic zone that can sustain its own geothermal systems. 11% of its territory is covered by glaciers: during the warm season, the ice melts and feeds the glacial rivers that, on their way from the mountains to the sea, contribute to the country’s hydroelectric resources. Moreover, Iceland has a huge wind energy potential that is currently virtually untapped, and that represents another major challenge for industrial development.
The results achieved so far are essentially due to two main factors. The first concerns a choice made by the local government at the end of the 1960s when, to further encourage the use of geothermal energy, a fund was set up to support drilling. The fund lent money for geothermal research and test drilling, and ensured cost recovery for unsuccessful projects. At the same time, the legislative framework adopted made it more convenient for households to connect to the new geothermal heating network rather than continuing to use fossil fuel. It’s precisely the combination of these two aspects that created the conditions suitable to make Iceland what it is today.
Reykjavik, sustainability and energy saving
Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and most populous city, is the perfect example to illustrate this successful strategy. It perfectly reflects the situation described so far, which serves as both a drive and testing ground for new technologies and experimentation. The city is renowned all over the world as a pioneer in the use of geothermal energy, which powers 95% of its heating systems.
The city’s development agenda demands the use of renewable energy, but also the implementation of green construction, urban planning based on the concept of active neighbourhoods, and the development of sustainable public transport, as well as a reduction in pollution and the preservation of green spaces. Indeed, in Reykjavik, about nine residents out of ten already live within a five minutes’ walk from a public green space.
Synergy between public and private sectors
In academic terms, Reykjavik is a leading global centre for renewable energy research, thanks to the collaboration between public and private sectors. The central government directly finances research projects on renewable energies, but there are also important individual initiatives, such as the Reykjavik University’s Green Program and Iceland School of Energy, which guarantee research, development and training on new technologies.
Having become the first city in the world to fully rely on renewable energy alone, Reykjavik now aims to ensure that all vehicles are powered by clean energy by 2040 and to be entirely fossil fuel free by 2050 by increasing the percentage of citizens using public transport from 4% to 12% by 2030. Of course, it is important to note that the Icelandic capital has more abundant geothermal and hydroelectric natural resources than most other cities in the world, which is undoubtedly an advantage in the energy transition. Moreover, although it is a capital city, its population amounts to about 125,000 people (about a third of the whole Icelandic population), a much smaller number than other large modern cities.
The author: Sabato Angieri
Graduated in European Literature at the University "La Sapienza" of Rome, he is a freelance journalist and editorial translator, he has collaborated in several cultural and artistic projects as an author and writer. He currently collaborates with Media Duemila, Lonely Planet as an author and with Elliot Publishing.
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