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FEATURE - Hydrogen puts Iceland on road to oil-free future

Date: 31-May-02
Country: ICELAND
Author: Ben Hirschler

Now this island of lava on the edge of the Arctic plans to become the world's first society to ditch fossil fuels entirely, relying instead on hydrogen made using the power of its roaring rivers and volcanoes.

Enthusiasts even talk about it one day becoming the "Kuwait of the North" as an exporter of the new, green fuel to markets in Europe.

For Bragi Arnason, professor of chemistry at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, better known as "Professor Hydrogen", converting his country to a fuel that produces no greenhouse gases will be a science fiction dream come true.

In the future, Iceland's cars, buses and ships will be driven by electric motors powered by hydrogen-fuel cells that produce nothing but water in their exhausts.

Unlike other countries contemplating hydrogen power, Iceland has a chance to develop a genuinely carbon dioxide-free system, since the electricity to make hydrogen from the electrolysis of water will come from hydro or geothermal power, not fossil fuel.

WAITING FOR THE BUS

Icelanders will get their first taste of the new era next year when three hydrogen-powered buses hit the road.

That is a year later than originally planned, because nine other European cities want to join in the bus experiment, requiring a bigger production run. Arnason, looking on the bright side, sees this as an endorsement of Iceland's approach.

In cities like Madrid, Amsterdam and Hamburg, hydrogen buses will represent only tinkering at the edges. For Iceland, it is the start of something much bigger.

Converting all the country's 180,000 vehicles and 2,500 fishing trawlers to hydrogen won't happen overnight - Iceland is giving itself 30-40 years to kick the oil habit completely - but the launch of the energy plan a year ago was a watershed.

The scheme is backed by DaimlerChrysler, which will build the first buses, together with energy giant Royal Dutch Shell and Norwegian industrial group Norsk Hydro

All three firms have invested in a new company called Icelandic New Energy and plan to use Iceland as a test-bed for a technology that some scientists think holds the key to mankind's energy needs after the oil runs out.

"Thirty years ago people said it was nonsense," Arnason told Reuters. "But slowly people have come round to the idea - especially with the involvement of big companies. Now, all around the world, people are starting to look at hydrogen."

While technical problems remain, the technology of fuel cells has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last 10 years.

Arnason reckons hydrogen fuel cells are now approaching competitiveness with oil.

At an oil price of $20 a barrel, Icelandic hydrogen would be two or three times as expensive as gasoline but this is balanced by the fact that fuels cells are two to three times more efficient than internal combustion engines.

ENERGY PARADOX

At first sight, it might seem odd that Iceland should be bothering with hydrogen and worrying about greenhouse emissions. After all, 93 percent of all houses are already heated by eco-friendly geothermal energy.

But Iceland's tiny population of 280,000 faces a paradox - its large fishing fleet and energy-intensive metal smelting industry make it one of the world's largest per-head producers of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

That is a major frustration for a country which takes its environmental commitments seriously, yet has few options for expanding its economy.

Switching Iceland's vehicles and ships - which today account for two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions - from fossil fuels would give a lot more flexibility to build up industry while still meeting Kyoto Protocol guidelines.

Jon Bjorn Skulason, general manager of Icelandic New Energy, says the potential is considerable, since Iceland has so far tapped only 15 percent of its hydro and geothermal reserves.

The government is champing at the bit to expand the industrial base. Only last week, it announced the start of f

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Reuters
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