Iceland: Towards a Carbon-Free Future

Towards the end of March, I went to Iceland for a week with the lady.  Neither of us had been abroad in years -- it had been a decade for me -- and there are pretty cheap direct flights from Baltimore, so we took a chilly spring break excursion to Europe's wildest island. We took an overnight flight, landing at 6 AM, then rented a little hatchback and headed into Reykjavik. After breakfast, we napped in the car and then checked into our AirBnB. Later, we poked around the capital's design district, which boasted an impressive array of Made in Iceland products. 

We used AirBnBs every night except one -- the hotel system in Iceland seems to be mostly guesthouses and hostels, and the AirBnB listings were transparent (and cheap!). Reykjavik was a startlingly clean, modern, walkable city, built in a kind of vernacular modern style that was hard to place. It was part Bauhaus, part Scandinavian, and part Rural Studio, all galvanized tin siding and steep roofs.

Typical Reykjavik house; not too big, not too small, entry elevated off of the street a little bit. 

Typical Reykjavik house; not too big, not too small, entry elevated off of the street a little bit. 

Traditional earth-sheltered architecture out in the rural areas. 

Traditional earth-sheltered architecture out in the rural areas. 

The next day, we headed north, towards the famous Gullfoss waterfall. A number of natural wonders are clustered just north of the city -- geysers, the original seat of Iceland's parliament, and a whole bunch of waterfalls. The roads were all two lanes, one in each direction; sometimes, they narrowed to one-lane bridges. The further north we went, the worse they got. Everywhere, we were surrounded by 4x4s, hammering by on snow tires.

The 4x4s were no joke. Lady for scale. 

The 4x4s were no joke. Lady for scale. 

Gullfoss, one of the largest waterfalls in the world, replete with rainbow. Photo does not do the scale of the thing justice. 

Gullfoss, one of the largest waterfalls in the world, replete with rainbow. Photo does not do the scale of the thing justice. 

From there, we dropped down to the black sand beach of Vik. From Vik, we followed the ring road (a sort of country-wide beltway) all the way around the island back to Reykjavik. All in all it took six days, though an extra day would've given us a little less driving and a little more time to enjoy the vistas that broke open around every corner. Our favorite stop was the little city of Akureyri, the capital of the north, where we had a lovely little apartment, good food, and a charming downtown to walk through. 

Our cottage in Vik. 

Our cottage in Vik. 

Obligatory black sand beach shot.

Obligatory black sand beach shot.

Stunning natural beauty aside, what most impressed me about Iceland is that it is the first carbon-free economy in the developed world. Through quirks of geography and geology, they are able to produce a huge amount of hydropower electricity and free (ish), endless heat from geothermal sources. Most of the houses, even in smaller villages, are clustered together and rely on district heating systems that are far more efficient than distributed heating. Further, Iceland has tapped but a fraction of its available resources, opening up the possibility of export through conversion to transportable fuels such as hydrogen or hard products such as steel.

Geothermal plant between Akureyri and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. 

Geothermal plant between Akureyri and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. 

The first electrical system was  a homegrown affair, invented by an entrepreneur in 1904. By the early fifties, the entire country was electrified. Shortly thereafter, experiments in large-scale geothermal power generation began. We passed several such plants on our trip -- small, distributed units in isolated communities, and one huge plant that send power to the capital. We also passed several enormous greenhouse complexes, presumably heated by geothermal power and lit by renewable electricity in the winter. Food, particularly vegetables, was quite expensive (averaging $30-40 for dinner) because it all had to be imported. 

Greenhouses. 

Greenhouses. 

The renewable bonanza has not yet touched transportation, which remains oil-based. Electric vehicles are slowly catching on, but long distances, rural living situations, and the unreliability of batteries in cold weather have hampered their adoption. Gas is all imported and quite expensive.

Could it work here? America has tapped all of its major hydropower opportunities, often with detrimental environmental consequences. Some estimate the 9 western states could provide as much as 20% of domestic power through geothermal, but those projections are unreliable. Distributed solar and large-scale wind still hold tremendous promise, if only the gatekeepers could be beaten back by a truly free market. 

Even as we struggle to get our act together, it was nice to glimpse the promised land, as cold as it was.