A Renewable Summer Spent Under the Midnight Sun

12 October 2010
By Nina Whitney '12
The Midnight Sun in Icelandic mountains
The sunset/sunrise the night of the summer solstice. We hiked to the top of Súlur and watched as the sun set at 1:15am and rose five minutes later over the fjord, Eyjafjörður.

Sæl (hello) Carleton! I hope both old and new are settling into Carleton life after hopefully fabulous summers. I certainly had an amazing summer and I wanted to tell you a little bit about it on this blog as it relates to my quest as one of six sustainability assistants (STAs) here at Carleton this year: shrinking our metaphorical carbon footprints at Carleton and worldwide (i.e. reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere…by the way, this should also be your quest).

In any event, I spent the first half of this summer about a degree south of the arctic circle, in the island country of Iceland. I will forever treasure the amazing adventures I had while there, from sampling some of the local delicacies, including rotten shark and sheep’s head (a literal sheep’s head served on a plate, tongue, teeth and all), to riding the tölt, a gait unique to the Icelandic horse (look it up on YouTube…pretty sweet), to the one in the morning hikes up a mountain to watch the sun set…and then rise five minutes later.

But the real reason I spent this past summer in Iceland was to study the Icelandic people’s seriously small and shrinking footprints. I went to Iceland with SIT Study Abroad on a program entitled: “Renewable Energy, Technology and Resource Economics”, and really, there is no better place to study such things than in Iceland, as I soon discovered. The numbers speak for themselves: 82% of all of Iceland’s energy comes from renewable sources. Nearly 100% of Iceland’s total electricity is from renewable energy, hydropower making up 70% of this total and geothermal making up the other 30%. Over 90% of homes in Iceland are heated by geothermal. The 18% of Icelandic energy that doesn’t come from renewable sources is primarily within the fisheries and transportation sector.

At face value, these numbers are extremely impressive. In 1965, Iceland used predominantly oil as its energy source. In 20 short years, it had switched almost entirely to renewable energy. But, as I soon discovered, Iceland did not switch over to renewable energy for any environmental reason. Iceland switched to renewable energy because that is what they have, and a lot of it. They don’t have oil or natural gas on their tiny island. But they have a lot of huge, glacial rivers that are supreme locations for hydropower dams. And they are situated right over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are spreading apart, causing the Earth’s crust that forms Iceland to be very thin and thus enabling hot earth material to be much closer to the surface there. These hot rocks in turn heat underground water, which produces geothermal steam that is brought to the surface through drilled boreholes and used to turn turbines and make electricity. The hot water itself is also pumped through home radiators for heat. Clearly, renewable energy is simply the cheapest, most secure and most readily available form of energy for Iceland.

I guess what I ultimately learned from my Icelandic adventure was that a country or a state or a town doesn’t necessarily have to have the highest population of tree-hugging people on earth in order to become a leader in the environmental movement. Iceland switched to renewable energy because it was most economically and geographically feasible to do so.

This is an important lesson to keep in mind when considering the implementation of renewable energy and other sustainable practices here at home: no matter what we want to do, we have to consider economics if we want our projects to be successful in the long run. And yet, despite the economic reasons for their switch to renewables, Iceland has taken it upon themselves to be the world leader in renewable energy: Reykjavik’s waste management company, Sorpa, collects the methane emitted from the city’s landfill and uses it to fuel their company cars, Reykjavik Energy has provided the location and much of the funds for an international pilot project aimed at sequestering carbon in basaltic rocks, and the Icelandic government, in partnership with the United Nations, founded the U.N. University Geothermal Training Programme more than 30 years ago to educate people from around the world in the amazing energy potential of geothermal and train them in its implementation.

It may have been purely geographical and economic reasons that drove Iceland to produce 100% of their electricity from renewable sources but they have realized their unique position in the world to make an important difference and they have acted on it. I think this is what we all must do if we are going to shrink our ever-growing carbon footprints.