In my entire life I have never breathed in purer air, drank cleaner water or felt so naturally energized. My family and I recently visited Iceland on a mission to encounter the country’s vast wonderland of geological extremes, and see firsthand how Iceland rose to become the largest clean energy producer per capita in the world. The small island nation’s energy use is impressively state-of-the-art, and their commitment to harnessing renewable energy resources is inspirational. A mere seven years ago, the country was on the brink of environmental and financial catastrophe.
Until the 1970s, Iceland was classified as a developing country by the United Nations Development Program. For centuries it was among the poorest in Europe, a nation dominated by sheep farming, fishing and a dirty energy mix of fossil fuel, imported oil and coal.
In the decades that followed, Iceland radically transformed its energy system to one that relies on domestic renewable sources. Today, all of Iceland’s electric power is generated by hydropower and geothermal energy, and about 95 percent of the nation’s heating demands are warmed by geothermal means. This was accomplished through localized, profit-driven initiatives led by communities, small villages and individual entrepreneurs.
Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, has had a great deal to do with the country’s turnaround during his 19 year tenure. Grímsson has been a tireless advocate of sustainable development and an outspoken leader in climate action. He encourages global discussion that positions the economy at the center.
“It’s about the economic transformation of the country to realize that the move from fossil fuel over to clean energy is fundamentally good business—it’s fundamentally the road to prosperity and economic achievement,” said Grímsson to an audience at Cornell.
In addition to enhanced quality of life and health of its citizens, Iceland’s clean energy economy helped its people survive the banking collapse. Thanks in large part to the cost of heating and electricity for ordinary families, homes and businesses being comparatively very low to other European countries. With the long-term availability of clean energy at fixed prices, Iceland has become highly attractive for foreign investments. Some of the biggest aluminum smelters, data-storage centers, high tech industries and other thriving enterprises are now based in Iceland.