Europe to Import Clean Energy from Up North?

What’s the only country in the world that generates 99% of its electricity from clean, carbon-neutral energy sources? If you guessed Iceland—a nation with a relatively tiny population but vast renewable energy resources—you’re right. Today almost all Iceland’s electricity comes from two renewable power sources: a system of dams fed by melting glacier water, and geothermal power from the country’s geologically active interior. For years Iceland has led the world by example when it comes to harnessing renewable energy, but the far-northern nation’s impact on global energy economics could soon become a lot bigger.

The thing is, while Iceland’s clean grid is great for its citizens (who don’t have to deal with pollution from dirty power plants or worry about the price of fossil fuels), it just doesn’t take that big a bite out of worldwide carbon emissions because the country’s population is so small. Iceland is only home to about 320,000 people—a population the size of a medium-small US city. Further, because it is an island it’s no simple matter for Iceland to export energy through power lines to other countries. However that could be about to change, as engineers and investors look at building the world’s longest power cable to send clean Icelandic energy south to Scotland.

Iceland has long been an exporter of clean energy expertise, with Icelandic experts helping countries from the United States to the Philippines figure out how to develop their own geothermal resources. Soon Iceland could be exporting actual energy as well. Currently the country only uses about 40% of its estimated geothermal reserves, and what’s leftover could meet the energy needs of five million homes in Europe. Clean energy exports could eventually make up ten percent of the Iceland’s economy and help it recover from the 2008 financial crisis.

Iceland’s push to become an energy exporter is part of a much larger trend in Europe, where renewable energy is becoming a product that can be transported over vast distances to reach highly populated areas. Southern Europe is already looking at one day importing electricity from solar farms in the Sahara Desert. Wind-rich countries to the north have set their sites on becoming energy exporters as well. Many places in the United States could similarly cash in on the renewable revolution if the national grid was designed to accommodate them. The sunny Southwest, windy Great Plains, and geothermal-rich Appalachia could become US power houses, supplying the rest of the country with electricity.

Considering Iceland has led the world so long on the renewable energy front, perhaps it is no surprise the country is poised to become a leader in exporting clean power. If plans to transport electricity from Iceland Europe go through, this island nation could make its biggest dent on the global energy market yet.

Photo credit: ThinkGeoEnergy