Iceland aims to be first country with hydrogen energy economy

Iceland intends to be the first country to convert its energy economy to hydrogen power, and expects to gain complete freedom from dependence on oil or coal by 2030, reports environmental thinktank Worldwatch.

Currently dependent on imported oil for 38% of its national energy use, and home to energy intensive industries originally attracted to the country due to the lowest cost electricity in the world, the country is focussing on hydrogen fuel cell technology, particularly for its transport sector.

“While other industrial countries agonise about their oil dependence and carbon dioxide emissions, Iceland is going ahead with the kind of bold change we’re all going to have to face sooner or later,” said Seth Dunn, author of the Worldwatch report.

Iceland is already a country rich in renewable energy, with 90% of the country’s buildings, and all of the capital’s, heated by geothermal energy, which is also widely harnessed for power generation, and used for heating greenhouses. Hydroelectricity currently provides 19% of Iceland’s energy, bringing the total share of energy production to 58% renewables. Despite this, however, Iceland has not signed the Kyoto Protocol due to fears that new aluminium smelters would take the country’s emissions over even the nation’s hard-fought for 10% reprieve in the Protocol’s target.

However, the country has now outlined a gradual five-phase transition to hydrogen for the transport sector. Phase one consists of a $8 million (£5.6 million) project to demonstrate hydrogen fuel cells in Reykjavik’s 100 public transport buses, with three such buses in operation by 2002. The second phase will be to convert the entire bus fleet at a cost of $50 million (£35 million), followed by the conversion of private passenger cars in phase three. Currently, however, storing the required pressurised hydrogen on a large number of smaller vehicles is too expensive, so the first cars to be converted are expected to run on liquid methanol from which hydrogen is released by heating. The final two phases will involve the conversion of a demonstration fishing boat to methanol power, followed by the replacement of the entire fishing fleet.

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,” said Dunn. “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.”

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