Renewable Energy

Iceland Proves There's Hope for Hydrogen

Mike Fitzgerald, Fast Company

A trip to the steaming, bubbling badlands of Iceland proves one thing: There is hope for hydrogen.

Iceland's Hydrogen Economy

Iceland is an anomalous place. First, thanks to the Gulf Stream, it isn't all that icy. That would be Greenland, named by Erik the Red, the inventor of travel marketing. That's not to say Iceland doesn't have weather — I experienced four seasons in 30 minutes on a visit to the Gullfoss waterfall. There is an elemental war going on here: The clouds blot out every bit of light, then the sun stabs through in displays of horrible beauty; the postcard-perfect mountains look impermeable, but up close, it's clear they've been raked by watery claws of snow and rain; the ubiquitous lava fields wrestle with hummocks of grass and moss.

Depending on your point of view, Iceland was either the last part of Europe to be settled or the first part of North America to see Europeans. It sits on both continents, astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the earth's plates are gradually pulling apart, making Iceland a bubbling vessel of magma-heated water. Since its settlement by Vikings in AD 874, the country has remained remarkably isolated. The people — all 300,000 of them, roughly the population of Aurora, Colorado — are as homogeneous as the weather and the terrain are not. Iceland is Appalachia with different rocks.

Their remoteness, however, seems to have made Icelanders particularly resourceful. Faced with essentially no arable land, they built greenhouse farms to raise cucumbers and tomatoes and even bananas. In the fish-rich but almost uninhabitable north, Icelandic fishermen needed special clothing, which spawned 66° North high-tech outerwear, now sold in 15 countries. Icelanders have even managed to turn their own lack of diversity into an advantage: deCODE Genetics, based in the capital, Reykjavik, has built the largest DNA database of its kind (on a per capita basis) to spot disease-causing mutations and use them to develop biotech drugs.

But Iceland's primary innovation, the one that puts it on the map for some of the world's largest companies, centers on renewable energy. The country has no coal, no petroleum reserves, and no trees. (The Vikings leveled the timber centuries ago, leading to this bit of local wit: "What do you do if you're lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up.") Rather than continue to import every calorie of fuel, Icelanders figured out how to heat their homes with their copious geothermal supply; before long, they were generating geothermal electricity as well. Today, Iceland imports essentially no coal or oil for heat and power: 70% of its energy is renewable. Reykjavik is at the center of this energy vanguard, filling all of its needs from green sources, either geothermal or hydroelectric.

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Printed with permission from FastCompany Magazine.