99.5% Of Iceland's Non-Transportation Energy Comes From Renewable Sources, But Nobody Wants Electric Cars

Power plant Hellisheiði geothermal plant/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

Iceland looks small on a map, but it is actually about the size of the State of Kentucky, with a population of less than a tenth that of the state, with only 330,000 people. It's also awash in energy, with all of its electricity coming from hydro-electric or geothermal sources. Hot water and steam bubble out of the ground all over the country.

water pipeLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
Hot water for heating is delivered to Reykjavik in giant pipes like this. The potential for more development is huge, and the cost of the electricity is so low that it makes sense to bring bauxite by ship from Australia for processing and then shipping aluminum back. They are talking about laying the worlds longest underwater power line, 930 miles, to the UK to export power.

Not everyone in Iceland is crazy about all this geothermal expansion; some note that it isn't as clean and green as it purports to be. On Saving Iceland they write:

Those who promote large-scale geothermal energy production as green and environmentally friendly, are once again forced to face another backlash as a recent research suggests a direct link between sulphur pollution from the Hellisheiði geothermal plant and asthma among the inhabitants of Reykjavík.

They also note that there are issues with excess water and runnoff.

According to the plant’s license the run-off water should actually be pumped back, down into earth, in order to prevent polluting impacts and the creation of lagoons containing a huge amount of polluting materials. [environmentalist Ómar Ragnarsson ]’s discovery shows that this is certainly not the case all the time, and additionally, the pumping that has taken place so far has proved to be problematic, creating a series of man-made earthquakes in the area, causing serious disturbances in the neighbouring town of Hveragerði.

Iceland suvThe biggest SUV I ever saw/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

With cheap domestic electricity and expensive imported gasoline (US$ 7.15 per gallon), one would think that this would be a killer market for electric cars. I asked a few Icelanders about this and they all said no, too expensive and they don't work for them. Most of the cars that I saw in the country were serious SUVs, but in the City it was a mix. Certainly much of the country is covered very rough dirt road, but 75% of the population living within 37 miles of Reykjavik and an electric car would make sense for almost everything but going back country.

Yet last year, according to Michael Vaughan in the Globe and Mail, there were exactly 11 electric cars in the entire country.

TrafficRush hour in Reykjavik/CC BY 2.0

It's not for lack of trying; people has been saying that Iceland would be electric car paradise for years. Jim Motavalli in Car Talk describes how one entrepreneur wants to bring in 1,000 Teslas. It's not the range-shortening electric heaters; Iceland rarely gets below freezing, it is really inappropriately named.

horsesSorry about the reflections/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In the end, after talking to Icelanders, I think it is cultural; they are really attached to the countryside and want to be able to take off for the trails and the stables where they keep their cute little horses. Perhaps anyone selling electric cars should have a sharing or rental program offering SUVs when needed for that urge to head for the hills.

99.5% Of Iceland's Non-Transportation Energy Comes From Renewable Sources, But Nobody Wants Electric Cars
They get their electricity from hydropower and their building heat from geothermal; there are some benefits from living on a fault line.

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