Iceland bolsters quest for 'hydrogen society'
What started as a visionary aspiration in the 1970s has turned into a government-led programme to change the way Iceland feeds its energy addiction. Tony Samstag reports on the country’s hydrogen revolution
In the European greener-than-thou stakes, the island nation of Iceland has a pretty good head start.
For one thing, it is the most sparsely populated country in Europe – its ethnic progenitor, Norway, comes second – with barely three inhabitants for each of its 100,000 square kilometres, some 80 per cent of which are uninhabited. For another, it is blessed with massive reserves of clean, renewable hydropower and geothermal energy, which together account for virtually all of its electricity generation and domestic heating (see figure 1).
And the scope for further progress is immense: less than a third of this energy, according to government estimates, has been developed for electricity production (see figure 2).
HIGH CARBON EMISSIONS
Unsurprisingly, Iceland’s energy use per capita is one of the world’s highest. Energy-intensive enterprises find the place inviting, as witnessed by the expansion of Iceland’s metal production and processing industries.
But there is a downside. Because Iceland has no fossil fuel resources of its own, it must import oil for transport and to power its 1,300-strong fishing fleet, which brings in almost three quarters of its export income.
This situation in turn contributes to yet another statistical quirk: ironically, this under-populated, largely unpolluted country has a surprisingly high level of per-capita greenhouse gas emissions (see figure 3).
The government has decided that the best way to fill this energy gap is to convert the entire national transport system to hydrogen by 2050, transforming the country into a “hydrogen society”. The project has captured the imagination of headline writers as much as scientists and environmentalists around the world.
Iceland expects to meet its 2008-2012 Kyoto commitment not to exceed 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10 per cent. However, the government’s climate strategy for 2007-2050 is “not only to adhere to international obligations, but to seek all economically feasible means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, in large part by “increasing the use and consumption of climate-friendly fuel”.
HYDROGEN: PROS AND CONS
Among the advantages of hydrogen is that it can be extracted from water and will emit only water vapour when burned.
A major drawback is that the extraction process is energy intensive, a state of affairs leading Icelandic New Energy (INE), a consortium formed in 1999, to declare: “Iceland’s abundance of renewable energy resources is chief among the factors that make it a perfect location for this significant fuel transformation... that can sharply reduce Iceland’s remaining reliance on fossil fuels.”
In short, as an International Energy Agency official remarked earlier this year, Iceland’s is “a very exotic energy system where hydrogen could make sense”.
INE, with its holding company partner VistOrka, is a grouping of investment funds, academic and research institutions, private enterprises, energy firms and government agencies responsible for the “hydrogen society” project.
INE also works as an international project manager in demonstrations and research involving hydrogen applications for transport and backup power.
The consortium sees its ultimate goal as turning Iceland into an economy that “is only run on renewable, local energy sources”. In the meantime, its job is to test this fuel system in the context of local energy production. It is also preparing electric and water distribution systems for hydrogen conversion. Finally, it aims to determine whether “the benefits in economic, environmental and social terms are more than the economic, environmental and social cost”.
Although the overall project is reportedly running somewhat behind schedule, project leaders see no insuperable obstacles to meeting their targets, provided that “technical, economic and social development becomes aligned towards this goal”.
THE ROAD TO HYDROGEN
The first step towards investigating the potential of hydrogen as a practical sustainable energy carrier was taken on 1 March 2001 with the launch of the EU-funded Ecological City Transport System scheme.
This aimed to gather information on the technological performance of the hydrogen-powered buses and the hydrogen infrastructure and to conduct research on the socio-economic and environmental implications of using hydrogen as an energy carrier.
Two years later, the world’s first commercial hydrogen filling and storage facility was formally opened on the site of a conventional filling station in Reykjavik, servicing three Daimler fuel-cell buses operating as part of the city’s public transport system.
By the end of the pilot project in 2006, the hydrogen-fuelled buses had driven tens of thousands of kilometres in Reykjavik, “generating widespread public enthusiasm and acceptance of hydrogen as a fuel”, INE says.
Green to the last, two of the buses were subsequently dismantled for spare parts and the fuel cells sold as educational equipment, while the third was given to a transport museum.
The next step in what is known as the Smart-H2 (Sustainable Marine and Road Transport – Hydrogen in Iceland) project, from early 2007, was to apply the technology to boats and private vehicles.
The current hydrogen fleet includes a number of converted Toyota Prius cars and Daimler-made vehicles based on the Mercedes A-Class – probably the world’s first hydrogen hire cars – and the world’s first (yet again) hydrogen-equipped commercial ship.
The Elding is a 125-ton rescue vessel adapted for whale watching, with a capacity of 150 passengers. The owners offered the vessel as a test case for hydrogen operations almost two years ago.
Rather than replace the main engine it was decided to start on a smaller scale and fit a fuel cell to replace the auxiliary system that runs the navigation machinery, lights and other electric equipment on board.
Completed in April this year, the retrofit comes with a delightful fringe benefit: unlike the diesel auxiliary it replaces, the fuel cell is completely silent, so that whales can be heard as well as seen when the main engines are switched off during observation.
The project now aims to have 20-30 hydrogen cars on the streets before the end of 2009 and to develop a 10-kilowatt fuel cell and battery for use in a hybrid system.
‘PROFESSOR HYDROGEN’ SEES THE FUTURE
Iceland’s obsession with hydrogen dates from the oil crisis of the 1970s when Bragi Arnason, a professor of chemistry at the University of Iceland suggested the nation’s abundance of water and renewable energy might make it viable to extract the gas from water for use as a transport fuel.
Professor Arnason, now known affectionately as “Professor Hydrogen”, believed that electricity harnessed from geothermal and hydropower sources could drive the electrolytic process required to extract the gas.
Years of feasibility studies and reports followed, together with public consultations on environmental concerns, technical development and fuel security, before the establishment of INE in 1999 as “a facilitator, aiming to create a venue for the testing of hydrogen technology”.
The firm has moved on from its initial role as an enabling company and project manager and now describes itself as “a professional research, development and consultancy company with steady growing knowledge assets within research design, educational functions within environment, hydrogen, energy systems and integration into society”.
The Icelandic Energy Authority reckons that running the entire transportation system and fishing fleet on hydrogen fuel could require 10-15 per cent of the remaining available renewable energy sources. It may also be feasible to use plug-in battery vehicles in a mix with hydrogen for long-distance vehicles.
INE also speculates that “if aluminium smelters were to be closed down at any time in the future, the electricity from the relevant power stations might be used for hydrogen production if demand rises and becomes competitive with other options for using the power”. In any case, it is now thought that mass-produced hydrogen-powered vehicles could be on the market by about 2012.
Iceland’s conversion from fossil fuels to hydrogen by 2050, in INE’s words, is “ambitious but feasible”. In the meantime, Iceland has already become “a centre for research and international discourse on the use of hydrogen fuel, a living laboratory for an experiment that could have global implications”.
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