The winter night at latitude 65 degrees North is long, cold, and very dark. But the inhabitants of a small island of black volcanic rocks and white glaciers rarely pay much attention to discomfort—they sit warm and cozy in geothermally heated, brightly lit houses. The occasional earthquake or volcanic outburst rocks the island, but the inhabitants are not terribly worried; they’ve learned to make use of their country’s power.
In 1937, Iceland’s members of parliament decided to start a new campaign, one that was quite revolutionary in its design. The campaign was not driven by security or sanitation needs, though it inevitably led to improvements in both areas. A new hydro dam was being built on one of Iceland’s many rivers. With a sudden surplus of electricity in the city of Reykjavík along with a large debt due to the cost of the dam, city officials wanted to create more demand for electricity. The government decided to encourage all households to purchase Rafha electrical stoves and set their coal cooking stoves permanently aside. Housewives were given booklets describing how to cook with electricity. But as the stoves were expensive, the company selling them introduced another brand new idea—customers of the electrical company could pay for the stoves in installments. The idea took hold and the Rafha electrical stoves sold like hotcakes.1
Three Major Fuel Transitions
This was one early step toward the electrification of Iceland. The changes to Iceland’s energy and fuel systems are generally seen to have gone through three major transitions in the past century.2 The first of these took place during the 1920s and 1930s, when the majority of Icelanders stopped using peat to heat their houses and began using imported coal instead. The second transition occurred in the years after the Second World War, when Icelanders switched from coal to oil. These first two transitions go more or less hand in hand with changes in technology and methods in Europe and North America (though Iceland was rather late in giving up peat for coal, mostly due to the prohibitive cost).
The third, and most important, transition was the move from fossil fuels as the main source of heat and electricity to renewable resources.2 This began in full force in 1965 and has not yet run its course. The roots of the third transition can be traced to a much earlier time; they are tied to the spread in popularity of electric cooking stoves in the 1930s as well as the islanders’ ingenious innovations when it comes to geothermal energy. But the transition to electricity took off after the worldwide oil crisis of the 1970s made it economically viable to rely more heavily on local energy sources. It is likely that the next major changes in Icelandic energy use will be due to the current economic crash, which has hit Icelanders hard.
But let’s back up and take a historical look at the major, and most visible, changes in Iceland’s energy regime. Because the country is an island, its grid is isolated from Europe, and Iceland must therefore fulfill all its own needs when it comes to electricity. At the turn of the twentieth century, Icelandic entrepreneurs became enamored of the idea of using the island’s own resources, rather than imported oil, to create the necessary electricity. Hydropower was first generated en masse in Iceland in the early 1900s. Farmer, carpenter, and innovator Jóhannes Reykdal had visited hydro dams in Norway, and soon after his return home he contacted Iceland’s first electrician, Halldór Guðmundsson. Together, they built a small dam in the town of Hafnarfjordur, near Reykjavík. On a dark winter night, on December 12, 1904, the pair formally opened the dam and proudly watched as electricity lit up 16 houses in Hafnarfjordur, including the elementary school and Jóhannes’s carpentry shop.3
The first large hydro dam was built more than 30 years later in the river Sog in the south of Iceland and prompted many Icelanders to begin cooking with electricity. Up until then, electricity had mostly been used to light people’s homes, in addition to running a few machines in factories. But after the dam in Sog was built and electrical stoves became the norm in Icelandic households, hydroelectricity was increasingly used within the city.1
Using Geothermal Energy to Heat Houses
When visiting this geothermally active land, one might argue that it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to contemplate how best to use the hot-water springs that bubble night and day right by peoples’ homes. Indeed, Icelanders contemplated that possibility in varying degrees over the first millennium of the island’s human settlement. The sagas tell of how descendants of Viking settlers harnessed the hot water and made bathhouses and hot tubs; and throughout the 11 centuries since the land was first settled, women lucky enough to live near hot springs have used them to bake bread (“hot-spring bread,” or hverabrauð) and do their washing. But technology was limited. It wasn’t until 1908 that geothermal energy was first used to heat houses, when farmer, carpenter, and innovator Stefán Jónsson managed to bring hot-spring water in pipes into his home, warming it comfortably.4
The idea took hold, and in the coming years it became increasingly common to heat houses with hot-spring water, especially after the first geothermal heating plant opened in Reykjavík in 1928.4 One true story tells the origins of the ecovillage Sólheimar, which started out as a home for troubled children. From July until November in 1930, 10 children, the staff, and the village’s founder, Sesselja Sigmundsdóttir, lived in tents at an abandoned farmstead they had just rented for the home, while the first house was built. Sesselja’s brother, Lúðvík Sigmundsson, cleverly built a wooden floor for each tent and laid pipes under each floor. Through these pipes flowed hot water from the nearby geothermal spring, creating a cozy atmosphere as winter settled in in full force.5
After the oil crisis of the 1970s, the Icelandic government began in earnest to encourage people to use the country’s abundant geothermal heat. Now, nearly 90 percent of all buildings in Iceland are heated with hot water pumped from the ground—and most of the few that aren’t are heated using hydroelectricity.6
The Situation Today
Energy consumption per capita in Iceland is very high, largely due to several aluminum smelters, which consume about two-thirds of all electricity created in the country. Despite that, Iceland gets about 80 percent of its primary energy from renewable resources, and the government’s stated goal is to become both a carbon-free and oil-free country in 40 years.6 Dr. Brynhildur Davidsdottir has suggested that Iceland’s fourth logical energy transition would involve moving from fossil fuel use to other, more sustainable, fuels for fishing and vehicle fleets.2 Ideas about reducing fossil fuel use fly around workplace coffee rooms, blogs, local media, universities, and innovation centers. The most popular idea is the government’s: Iceland should cease importing oil and use only its renewable energy sources, including some that are still untapped, such as the wind and ocean currents.
These ideas are more than just talk. The nation has suffered heavily from the effects of the economic crash, and rising oil prices have made imported gasoline very expensive, increasing the appeal of electric cars that run on homemade renewable energy. More sustainable fuel types that are also economically viable are being sought out for Iceland’s fishing fleet, which is still dependent on fossil fuels.
At the Agricultural University, much effort is being put into research on methane. The university hosts a website that encourages farmers to capture methane from their animals’ waste and use it for fuel. Research shows that farmers could create methane gas equal to between 10,000 and 50,000 liters, which could enable each farm to be self-sufficient when it comes to fuel for its machines. The university website also offers guidelines and aid to farmers who want to use more of their organic waste instead of buying imported fertilizer.7 In addition to being more environmentally friendly than imported oil and fertilizer, both of these energy solutions are also very cost-effective for the farmers.
It is indeed a sweet irony of the recession that it might finally push Iceland to become carbon neutral.