Iceland's President Pushes for EVs...And a 100 Percent Clean Energy Economy

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND--The President of Iceland lives in Bessastadir, a historic, 19th-century residence on a peninsula. From a distance, it resembles the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, but up close it's notable for the lack of formality. The trappings of power are anathema in Iceland, where even Bjork can count on eating a quiet dinner in the capital city's excellent fish restaurants.

His Excellency Ã"lafur Ragnar Grímsson was a featured speaker at the Driving Sustainability '09 conference in Reykjavik. "Iceland is a model as well as an inspiration," he said. "We have shown that it is possible to move from being predominantly dependent on fossil fuel to be one of the leading clean energy countries in the world. Now we're developing ambitious plans to achieve even more, to power our transportation system and fishing fleet on clean energy sources. Can we manage a fundamental transformation to become the first 100 percent clean energy country in the world?"

As Grímsson poined out, Iceland, with its abundant geothermal and hydroelectric power, has among the lowest electric costs in the world. He cited a Reykjavik Energy study that estimates half the cars in the city (home to more than half of Iceland's 310,000 population) could be powered by electric power as early as 2013.

"It would be great if we could switch to electric cars on a large scale," Grímsson said. "The annual cost of operating a small electric car is the equivalent of two or three full tanks of gasoline." And that's especially true in Iceland, where electricity is cheap but gas very expensive.

Iceland isn't just talking about switching to electric cars. It has been in talks with Mitsubishi (already a supplier of turbines for its geothermal industry) for two years, and an agreement will put the company's i-MiEV EVs on the road here before they're anywhere else in Europe.

The country's financial crisis has arrested some development in mid-construction, but the Mitsubishi agreement is still on. The company's representatives attended the Driving Sustainability conference and outlined an ambitious agenda for clean energy in Iceland, but the timetable is still in question.

"I have not pressed them on it," Grímsson said. "Whether it happens in three or six months is not the main point. The main thing is close cooperation between Iceland and Mitsubishi."

The President is enthusiastic about cooperation among the five Nordic countries (with together have a population of 25 million) to develop standards and regulations for EVs, and constitute a unified market for cars from the world's manufacturers. "Texas has the same road rules as Florida," he said. "People expect to drive north to south in a harmonized way, and they will expect the same of the electric grid--the charging stations, the networks have to enable people to plug in anywhere."

Iceland has become known for trying to create the world's first hydrogen energy economy, but Grímsson pointed out that the fuel-cell revolution is experiencing a slowdown (symbolized by the Department of Energy's attempt, ultimately unsuccessful, to kill $150 million in hydrogen funding earlier this year). There are 10 hydrogen cars in Iceland and a Shell filling station, but EVs, Grímsson said, seem to represent a faster way forward.

There are more than 200,000 cars on Iceland's roads, and right now many of them are the large SUVs that handle the north's bad roads (and are favored by the country's tax system). But transformation seems imminent, especially since Iceland's entrepreneurs are working to put EVs on the country's roads. The next challenge, which might take longer Grímsson said, is clean power for Iceland's fishing fleet. But that's a subject for long meetings at Bessastadir, too.