Revisiting Iceland’s hydrogen economy

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116302507220720.jpg’, ‘Photo Courtesy of’, ‘In April 2003, Iceland opened the world’s first commercial hydrogen refueling station in Reykjavik. Three hydrogen-fueled buses were purchased and their performance assessed to guide decisions for adding additional ones.’);

Thorsteinn Sigfusson, then-president of Icelandic New Energy, was the major speaker for the second Illinois Renewable Energy Fair. If visions of a hydrogen economy were to be fulfilled, Iceland seemed the ideal place for it to happen. They had announced their intention to become the world’s first hydrogen economy, envisioning a 30-year transition in replacing gasoline and diesel fuel with hydrogen. Hydrogen was to come from electrolyzing water, using electricity produced by geothermal and hydro sources. Switching to hydrogen was seen as increasing energy independence, slowing global warming, saving money and generating local jobs.

In April 2003, Iceland opened the world’s first commercial hydrogen refueling station in Reykjavik. Three hydrogen-fueled buses were purchased and their performance assessed to guide decisions for adding additional ones.

At Sigfusson’s invitation, we traveled to Iceland, toured a geothermal electrical generating station and swam in the Blue Lagoon, heated with discharge waters from a geothermal power plant. We visited the hydrogen fueling station and saw the three hydrogen-fueled buses. At the end of our visit, Sigfusson provided us with a thrilling experience, standing near a recently completed bore hole for a new geothermal power plant.

We discussed the hydrogen program with Reykjavik University chemistry professor Bragi Aranson, an early advocate. We learned from him that another transportation fuel option was creating methanol using the substantial discharges of carbon dioxide from aluminum smelting plants in Iceland.

Sigfusson informed us he was a consultant to the aluminum industry. We were assured that the next aluminum smelter was the last one to be built, as the country did not want to be overly reliant on one industry. When our efforts to organize a group trip to Iceland failed to materialize, Sigfusson stopped answering our e-mails. Later, we learned he was no longer president of Icelandic New Energy.

Since then, we continue to watch hydrogen developments in Iceland. In May 2006, General Motors invited Bill Moore of EV World and other journalists to attend a meeting highlighting pathways toward a hydrogen future. Interestingly, the methanol pathway advocated by Aranson no longer relied on the massive release of carbon dioxide from smelting aluminum. Instead, Moore reported that carbon dioxide would be captured by tapping into the island’s immense resource of volcanic carbon dioxide and combining it with hydrogen electrolyzed by geothermal and hydro power plants.

An article by Freyr Sverrisson in the November/December issue of World Watch calls attention to the continued expansion of the aluminum smelting industry and the neglect of the hydrogen economy. The lone hydrogen symbols remain the three buses and the refueling station. It appears the geothermal borehole we visited is destined to provide power for another aluminum smelter proposed for the site.

Karahnjukavirkjun, a new 690-megawatt hydropower plant under construction in northeast Iceland, will dam two major glacial rivers to power another aluminum smelter under construction. The site was the top-rated natural area in Iceland in need of protection.

“Missing in Action: Iceland’s Hydrogen Economy” is extremely critical of the government’s commitment to the aluminum industry and its neglect of the hydrogen program. Its aluminum industry makes Iceland the world’s leading emitter of global warming gases on a per-person basis. Instead of being the showcase for a clean energy future, Sverrisson portrays Iceland as sliding backward toward an outdated model of development.

When the hydrogen economy was being touted in 2003, many environmentalists considered it a ploy to distract attention from global warming and oil and natural gas depletion. With Iceland, we are left wondering whether the hydrogen hoopla served to divert attention from the rapid expansion of the aluminum industry. We are also left to wonder what other clean energy options may be serving similar purposes. Perhaps we should be more careful of what we wish for, as its final form may be quite different from what we envisioned.

From the Nov.8-14, 2006, issue

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