Iceland: opening both eyes and minds

I’ve worked at UNBC for more than 21 years now and one of the best parts has been meeting students who have a certain attitude or charisma; you just know they’ll change the world. Over the years, some of these students have become politicians and CEOs but many more have quietly brought their values and smarts to their workplaces and communities and simply made things better.

I hope to use this blog to introduce some of these future leaders to you and have them share some of their perspectives and ideas. Jordan Carlson is the first. He attended a summer school on energy in Iceland over the summer and was really inspired by the experience. Here’s his story, the first of what I hope will be many guest blog posts from UNBC students.

UNBC student Jordan Carlson, recently back from Iceland

In July and August this year, I was lucky enough to attend a renewable energy summer school program at Reykjavik University in Iceland – then known as part of the REYST (Reykjavik University programme in Sustainable Energy), and now a part of the university’s Iceland School of Energy. The reason I say lucky is because the financial support of UNBC’s Green Fund, UNBC’s Department of Physics, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, and UNBC’s Dean of Student Success allowed me to be in Reykjavik from July 26th until August 17th, attending the program.

Now, what most people have asked me about this trip is simple (and you’re probably already thinking it): why go to Iceland to study renewable energy? The answer is equally simple; no other region on the planet gets as much of its energy from renewable sources as Iceland does. Approximately 85% of Icelandic energy comes from either hydroelectricity or geothermal heat and power; the remaining 15% of their energy consumption is fossil fuels, used for transport both by consumers and by industry. All of the country’s electricity comes from renewables – roughly 75% hydroelectric, 25% geothermal – and more than 95% of the country’s heating requirements are met by geothermal hot water sources, piped throughout homes, businesses, and the rest of the country.

Though a unique situation, what lessons can be learned from Iceland’s energy sector – especially for BC, a region that similarly relies on hydro power? In my opinion, quite a few.

A geothermal heating plant near Reykjavik, Iceland

Iceland’s choice of renewable energy sources is primarily due to its geography. Few other regions of the planet have the volcanic activity and water resources that Iceland does, giving Icelanders nearly unrivaled capacity to make use of hydro and geothermal energy sources. Through exploiting the natural bounty of the region, they are able to pump incredibly hot groundwater throughout their towns, cities, and industrial regions to provide the heat they require in their day-to-day lives. The water is then pumped back into the ground to rejoin the geothermal cycle after its heat has been captured and used by Icelanders. As a result, so long as overdrawing is avoided, Iceland’s geothermal resources are entirely renewable and sustainable. The country’s freshwater, glacier-fed rivers, which provide a great deal of hydropower for its citizens, are similarly sustainable so long as they are managed properly.

The way that Iceland uses its energy is also instructive. Over 75% of the country’s electricity production is consumed by industry – primarily aluminum smelting. A large portion of Iceland’s energy projects, in fact, are designed from the outset to enable the creation of new industries to strengthen the Icelandic economy. British Columbia has done some of this in the past – such as the dam that was built to provide power for a Rio Tinto Alcan plant – but the choices behind dam location, construction, and other controls can be controversial. Nevertheless, the idea of using a power project to create the necessary grid capacity for new industries is a very powerful one – especially when combined with developing new knowledge in emerging technologies, and using that knowledge as an economic boost through exporting it.

Finally, one of the most surprising things learned while I was in Iceland was the scale of historical ecological devastation the country has seen. Since settlement, Icelanders have (primarily prior to the “Little Ice Age” of the 18th Century) destroyed over 90% of the country’s initial vegetation, whether forest or otherwise. Less than 5% of the birch forest that existed prior to settlement still stands. The result of this massive loss of vegetation has been vast deserts of black, volcanic sand that are not natural: they are a result of settlers cutting forests in order to build their homes and get wood for fuel, and allowing sheep to massively overgraze the local vegetation.

The extent of damage done to the environment was so extreme that, when the local environment suffered between 1700 and 1900, the Icelandic population crashed from over 300,000 to less than 60,000 at the turn of the 20th Century. Over the course of the past hundred years, Iceland’s population has rebounded to 320,000, but this population crash due to lost vegetation is a very clear warning of the danger posed by ecological damages over time. It gradually took place over nearly a thousand years, but the cumulative damage caused by Icelanders to their homeland nearly caused their own extinction.

To me, the primary lesson from all of this is that the best way to approach a sustainable energy system is to look at what resources are locally available – and to make use of them. Through building local expertise in geothermal and hydroelectric energy systems, Iceland has created an industry they are able to export, both through consulting firms and education programs, such as the one I attended. As British Columbia is a region rich in energy resources – natural gas, biomass, wind, hydro, geothermal, and even solar and waste energy – this serves as a potential model. By choosing a sphere in which few other parts of the world currently have expertise, British Columbians could develop a world-leading program in, for example, energy from forest biomass, and then export this knowledge directly through consulting engineering firms and designing energy systems for other parts of the world, and indirectly through attracting students and researchers who wish to investigate that form of energy. As a result, it is possible to look at the choices we make with regards to energy resources as a form of double-investment. First, we will be using those sources for as long as the infrastructure lasts (typically, between 40 and 100 years). Second, we can, by developing specialized knowledge and expertise, create an exportable commodity – knowledge and experience that only our province would have – thus resulting in economic gains for the province as a whole.

Feel free to share your own opinions on Jordan’s conclusions.


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About Rob van Adrichem

Rob van Adrichem is a UNBC grad and the University's Vice-President for External Relations. He was born and raised in Prince George and has been an employee of UNBC since 1992. He was appointed by former Premier Gordon Campbell to a provincial council on climate action and has been a champion of UNBC's efforts to be a model for sustainability. He is married with two young children.