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In this July 28, 2011 photo, giant ducts carry superheated steam from a volcanic field to the turbines at Reykjavik Energy's Hellisheidi geothermal power plant in Iceland. Scientists in the CarbFix experiment will separate carbon dioxide from the steam and pump it underground to react with porous basalt rock, forming limestone, to see how well the gas most responsible for global warming can be locked away in harmless form. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this July 28, 2011 photo, giant ducts carry superheated steam from a volcanic field to the turbines at Reykjavik Energy's Hellisheidi geothermal power plant in Iceland. Scientists in the CarbFix experiment will separate carbon dioxide from the steam and pump it underground to react with porous basalt rock, forming limestone, to see how well the gas most responsible for global warming can be locked away in harmless form. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The Green Highway

Why are there only 11 electric cars in Iceland? Add to ...

Another illusion shattered.

I travelled to Iceland hoping to find the real Green Highway. This tiny nation has more clean, geothermal electricity than it knows what to do with and had pledged itself as far back as 1998 to stop burning carbon altogether.

But what did I find? Traffic jams and gas stations. Big, ugly, gas-guzzling SUVs everywhere and, according to a Reykjavik newspaper, exactly 11 electric cars in the entire country. And what’s the main topic in today’s energy discussions? Oil drilling in Iceland’s fishing grounds.

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With 130 volcanoes on this mid-Atlantic island, Iceland is probably the best place on Earth for geothermal energy. Drill 2,000 metres into a hot spot and you have a near-endless amount of steam to drive generators and hot water to heat homes. Just slightly less than 100 per cent of Iceland’s electrical power comes from geothermal and hydro dams all delivered at bargain-basement prices. This should be the perfect place to have the world’s first all-electric fleet – plug in your cars at night and drive for next to nothing.

The population of Iceland is a little over 300,000 and three-quarters of them are in the Reykjavík vicinity; you can drive all around it even with the range of today’s plug-in cars. But electrification hasn’t happened and I can’t see that it’s going to happen any time soon.

Iceland’s plan back in the 1990s was to be the first mover to the Hydrogen Economy. We all know that hasn’t happened in Iceland or anywhere else, although I remain a believer that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will have a large place in the fleets 20 years from now. Iceland has only scratched the surface of its geothermal potential and the plan was to use abundant cheap electricity to produce, use and export hydrogen. I visited Iceland’s one and only hydrogen filling station and found it padlocked.

One hundred per cent of the oil burned daily in Iceland is imported – and it’s expensive. I’d be screaming for an electric car if I were an Icelander, but nary a Volt nor a Leaf nor an i-MiEV did I see.

One entrepreneur recently announced plans to bring electric cars to Iceland from India and we’ll see how that turns out. The Icelandic economy fell off a cliff in 2008 with the usual real estate bubble and crooked banks and it hasn’t recovered much. That has new-car sales off by about 80 per cent from the bubble years and it appears that people are hanging onto the gas guzzlers they bought in better times.

But I have the feeling the real reason The Green Highway hit a dead end in Iceland is just across the Norwegian Sea.

Iceland’s former ruler, Norway, is the world’s fifth-largest petroleum exporter with the highest standard of living in the world and a $550-billion sovereign wealth fund. Oil money has made Norway fat and happy – with the exception of the horrible, murderous rampage of earlier this summer. Iceland today seems to be more focused on getting a share of the oil bonanza like Norway than on becoming carbon-free.

Iceland permitted Norwegian oil exploration to go ahead this summer in the north-eastern part of Icelandic territorial waters. Last summer, Iceland’s president met Vladimir Putin in Russia and worked out a deal for Russia to begin oil exploration in Iceland as well. Iceland is planning an international auction for drilling rights within the 200-mile zone around its coast next summer.

Some estimates claim the Arctic contains 30 per cent of the world's undiscovered natural-gas reserves and 10 per cent of all oil reserves. Iceland wants in on the action; so does Russia, which is beefing up its northern defences, and so does Canada, which is conducting its largest-ever Arctic military exercise.

It was interesting to visit Iceland but disappointing that my clean, green, electric Iceland illusions were shattered. I’m writing about The Green Highway, but I have yet to find it.

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