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Iceland's First Steps Toward Plug-In Cars -- with Global Implications
Oct 17, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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Back in May, we were contacted by the organizing committee for a conference to be held in Iceland in September. "Driving Sustainability" would focus on the goal that 25% of all Reykjavik city vehicles run on renewable energy by 2014. We agreed to help make the case for the electrification of transportation. We didn't realize how important this event might be.

The result (all English-language program, presentations and photos at ) brought together almost 200 of the nation's top public officials along with business and academic leaders from Iceland and Northern Europe. Reykjavik is best known to many as the site of the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit; some participants suggested this conference may prove to have been a similarly globally-significant milestone in the evolution of energy/environmental strategies.


My first reaction had been: "I know about Iceland -- clean energy, small population -- it's a unique, special case." I would eventually realize that Iceland is in fact THE MOST IMPORTANT case. Iceland gets to be first to act in response to what are only hypothetical, fervently hoped-for conditions in most of the world:

"Imagine that your country has a guaranteed supply of ultra-low-greenhouse gas energy. What do you do? In general -- since we're talking about plentiful but still not unlimited clean energy -- how do you use it best? In particular, what do you drive?"

The conventional understanding of Iceland's future is that it has chosen a hydrogen highway. (A widely-distributed CNN story perpetuated that assumption as recently as last month:­2007/­TECH/­science/­09/­18/­driving.iceland/­.) In fact, that is distinctly NOT the case. Several years ago, the Icelandic Hydrogen Economy Project, which included Shell Oil's installation of the world's first commercial hydrogen fueling station and a few fuel cell buses, got the same kind of attention we've seen when US Presidents and California Governors pump million-dollar prototypes. Meanwhile, Iceland's Althingi (the world's oldest Parliament, founded in 930) has yet to endorse a hydrogen program.

The decision to hold this conference was the strongest sign yet that the votes aren't yet in. As elsewhere, Icelandic influencers looking for efficient solutions that can be implemented now, with today's technology and infrastructure, and that can become increasingly cost-effective, are choosing a path involving electrons and batteries, not hydrogen and fuel cells.

And it turns out that Iceland is ideally positioned to plug in its cars. With 98% of its population in towns and cities, most driving is commuting -- but everyone wants to be able to go to the glaciers, or circumnavigate the island's 1339km ring road. The country has more vehicles per capita than the United States; it may even have more SUVs per capita! A few more general conditions help: Since Iceland is ranked by the IMF as fifth in the world in per capita gross domestic product and (like the increasingly green Costa Rica) is one of the world's 24 nations without an army, presumably it can afford to trade in its cars. Ajnd with five daily newspapers for 300,000 people, and the most books and magazines published per capita in the world, it is probably in the best position to make informed choices!

We expect to write further about our experiences in Iceland, but here's a still-long summary of results plus key background items:

Our suggestion and offer to help further awareness of plugging by providing a real-life example of a plug-in hybrid was accepted. Here's the caption for the photo at­photos-groups.html ICELAND'S FIRST PHEV: Amberjac Projects UK converted the car belonging to University of Akureyri graduate student Gudmundur Arnason (at right), with the sponsorship of the National Energy Authority, in time for it to be shown at the first conference on Driving Sustainability September, 2007. Felix Kramer (at left) spoke at the event; also shown is conference organizer Teitur Thorkelsson. Since the Icelandic language generally doesn't adopt foreign words, it's a "tengiltvinnbifreithin"-- roughly, a "plug-twin moving ride." (This car is now in daily use around the island, and is based in the colder northern part of Iceland.)

Our 19-slide presentation was "The Case for PHEVs: The Best of Both Worlds"­presentations/­Felix_Kramer_CalCars_DS07.pdf Here are the somewhat telegraphic bullet items customized for Iceland:

- Opportunity: for a world that hopes to have clean abundant energy, Iceland can show the roadmap
- Transmission ->battery->motor, 70-80% efficient
- Hydrogen from electrolysis->fuel cell, 20-27%; ICE, 7-9% (losses+CO2 if reformulate natural gas)
- Worldwide, there's never "extra" green electricity to "waste" as long as coal can be displaced anywhere
- Even as range extender fuel, hydrogen will need to surpass cellulosic ethanol on a well-to-wheel basis
- Note: ethanol used at power station is more efficient than burned in an internal combustion engine

- Table shows that a Prius PHEV can be under 120 grams/kilometer of CO2 under multiple scenarios for electricity sources -- compared to 216 gm/km for gasoline, 194 for diesel and 127 for an unmodified Prius.

- Ideal test-bed: island/commuter driving -"Soft" buy order (hundreds)
- Buyer/seller incentives
- Promote "level playing field" for multiple energy solutions ("silver buckshot" not "silver bullet")
- Internationally, connect domestic geothermal know-how, R&D on "enhanced geothermal" (EGS) and steps to electrify transportation


- PROF. GERBRAND CEDER, Prof. of Materials Science and Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology­, presented on "Rechargable Lithium Batteries for Transportation"­presentations/­Ulf_Bossel_EFCF_DS07.pdf Ceder is one of a core group at MIT including Donald Sadoway and Yet-Ming Chiang that worked on the technology from which A123 Systems developed. Citing the urgency of action in the face of the climate crisis, he pointed out that it can take up to 18 years to commercialize new materials, so we have a "one-shot deal." He said "we're so close with batteries. With fuel cells, we're aeons away." He saw high-power batteries always staying ahead of supercapacitors; he described PHEVs with 40-60 km range as "the game changer," and the "likely future of transportation."
- DR. ULF BOSSEL, European Fuel Cell Forum, Switzerland , presented "The Case for Electric Cars"­presentations/­Gerbrand_Ceder_MIT_DS07.pdf He emphasized that the criteria for fuel cells vs. plug-in cars should be based on "physics not philosophy" and presented a broad engineering perspective on "above-ground" (wind/solar, tidal) vs. "below ground" (oil, coal, nuclear extractive) fuels. (For more on this, see his paper at­reports/­E23.pdf .) He memorably said, "The laws of physics can't be changed by research projects, votes of parliament, presidential initiatives, capital investments...the hydrogen economy has no past, present or future."


- OLAFUR RAGNAR GRIMSSON, Iceland's President, talking about the climate crisis (he's close with Al Gore), asked "how much time do we really have? 10 years? 25 years? It doesn't really matter: it's so short." We had met him previously in Silicon Valley; a hybrid driver, he asked that we keep him informed about PHEVs.
- THORLEIFUR FINSSON, Head of Overseas Projects and R&D and Reykjavik Energy, described how the utility provides electricity to 58% of the nation's population, and hot water to 67%; he described the enormous CO2 benefit of providing district heat to buildings; and he emphasized the difficulty in getting clean vehicles that meet its criteria
- MADELEINE STROJE WILKENS, Ambassador of Sweden to Iceland (one of the main co-sponsors of the conference, and home of Saab and Volvo), emphasized her country's goal to be fully oil-independent by 2020.
- ARNI MATHIESEN, Minister of Finance, said Iceland aimed to be a world leader in developing incentive programs for environmentally friendly vehicles.
- THORUNN SVEINBJARNARDOTTIR, Minister for the Environment said, "We can provide carbon-free electricity to the entire car-fleet of the Reykjavík area, if it converted to plug-in hybrid technology and reloaded at night ­- without having to construct new power plants. Now, there is a beautiful vision for an environment minister." (We include her full speech below.)
- JAN BRENTEBRATEN, recently appointed as Director, Alternative Fuel Vehicles Strategy, Ford of Europe, emphasized biofuels and hybrids, seeing fuel cells 15-20 years in the future and expressing doubt about pure electric vehicles.
- AGUSTA LOFTSDOTTIR, Manager of Alternative Fuels for the Icelandic National Energy Authority, speaking "unofficially," offered open-ended speculations about ways to make CO2 emissions the main criteria for future vehicle choices, including taxation and feebate concepts. She emphasized the findings of the UK's Stern Review: "the cost of failure is much higher than the cost of success."
- OTHER SPEAKERS presented the case for methanol, ethanol and biodiesel -- lest we give the impression that the conference was of one mind.
- TEITUR TORKELSSON, Conference Organizer, pointed to the conference's role in bringing the first PHEV and the first ethanol car to Iceland, and called on the participants to continue making history. He announced the likelihood of a successor conference Sept 18-19, 2008.

At post-conference meetings with Reykjavik Energy, the Energy Authority, and the Ministry of the Environment, we presented a picture of the campaign for plug-in cars in the US and globally, offered to make introductions and opened lines of communication for future projects. We began work on in proposals to help Iceland bring a global spotlight on the powerful combined "package" of plug-in cars along with the still-largely-overlooked sustainable geothermal (near-surface hot water producing heat and electricity, available in some parts of the world) and "enhanced geothermal systems" (EGS -- pumping liquid into deep hot dry rocks, far more broadly feasible). The week after we left, unfortunately at least for CalCars, prospects for near-term joint projects in which we might be involved shifted, as an important merger of two Icelandic energy companies turned out to be controversial and led to realignments of political coalitions in the city of Reykjavik (see­ ). We still hope to pursue some of these opportunities. We also had the opportunity to visit geothermal installations -- and spent two jaw-dropping days touring the southwest part of the island.

Though it's all in Icelandic, it's worth looking at the writeup on the Prius PHEV, still on the Icelandic National Energy Authority's home page at­; when it's gone from there it will be at­Apps/­WebObjects/­Orkustofnun.woa/­wa/­dp?detail=22038&id=2174.

The conference received broad coverage in Icelandic media, including a full-page interview with Felix Kramer in Vithskiptablathinu, the daily Icelandic Financial News (PDF on request).


"Iceland is in the unique position to have enough renewable energy for all its transportation needs. What we need is the technology to do this. Your plug-in-hybrid solutions seem an ideal first step and it could probably more easily be implemented here in Iceland than anywhere else in the world. We are therefore most interested in learning more about where this technology stands at the moment and what the future possibilities are.

Iceland is a global leader in the use of renewable energy with 72% of the energy consumption in the country from sustainable sources like hydro and geothermal sources. The remaining 28% of the energy use is mainly fossil fuels for the vehicle fleet, fishing vessels and aviation. Furthermore, the country has ample untapped sources of sustainable energy. A new government elected in spring 2007 states that it will systematically work to increase the use of environmentally friendly vehicles through economic incentives and other means.

This fact gives Iceland and its capital Reykjavik a clear advantage to become a global role model in transforming its vehicle fleet to one powered by renewable energy. What is needed is viable fuel and vehicle technology and the right policies to implement them.

The conference aims is to bring together Icelandic and foreign companies, financiers, scientists, government representatives and city authorities to discuss policies, technology, necessary actions and business opportunities in this field. Who is doing what, who are the leaders and why, and how do you change the transportation system to be 100% sustainable.

This year we aim to answer the question if and how 25 percent of all vehicles in Reykjavik can be transformed to run on renewable energy by 2014."

MINISTER FOR ENVIRONMENT'S SPEECH TO CONFERENCE­radherra/­raedur-og-greinar/­nr/­1107 How Can We Minimize Emissions from Transport? Can Iceland be a Leading Nation in Sustainable Energy for Transport? Thorunn Sveinbjarnardottir, Minister for the Environment Ladies and Gentlemen,

This month, we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that has successfully halted emissions of ozone-damaging chemicals. The treaty has little to do with transport, but it provides a lesson on science, technology and society that I think is relevant for us today. In short, science told us in the late 20th Century that the ozone layer was in peril, and we needed to stop using certain chemicals in refrigerators, spray-cans and other devices. Soon, a powerful lobby started to argue against international rules to solve the ozone problem, and warned that such rules would bring us a grim future of rotting food and smelly armpits. Now, 20 years later, the Montreal Protocol has largely succeeded in its mission, the ozone layer is on the mend, and refrigerators are humming in kitchens worldwide like never before. What happened? Technology came to the rescue. New ozone-friendly chemicals replaced the old ones, brought from the laboratory to the market with a push from the Montreal Protocol and the regulation and incentives it spurred.

This year, we are presented with a stark warning by the IPCC, a UN science body, telling us that global warming is real, that it is happening right now and about to get much worse unless we halt the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. These emissions are tied to almost all human activity: agriculture, energy, industry and ­ not least ­ transport, which is in many countries the sector where emissions are rising fastest. So, can technology once again ride to the rescue? I certainly hope so, and one is bound to feel a certain kind of optimism looking at the agenda of this conference. Speakers will make the case for hydrogen vehicles, methanol, methane and electric cars. My own hybrid Toyota is apparently yesterday's news, as the future will bring me a car I can plug in when I come home, along with my mobile phone.

It is clear that the UN Climate Convention and efforts by governments and business has caused a spur in research and development of climate-friendly technology. Governments should not pick winners, but stimulate R&D and create incentives for dissemination of existing low-carbon technologies. The Icelandic government has supported research in hydrogen and other fields, but we need to increase our efforts in this regard, and we need to make emissions control a central objective in our policy of taxing vehicles and fuels.

One hopes that the cars presented here at this conference will help us solve the climate problem. But there is another way to tackle emissions in transport, which is to look at our lifestyle. There are now more passenger cars per capita in Iceland than in the United States. It is difficult, if possible at all, to find a city in Europe where more people commute by car than in Reykjavík. Almost half of the surface area of Reykjavík is used for transport infrastructure. And traffic jams at rush hour are a popular complaint these days in this small northern metropolis.

We can change this. We can walk and bicycle for shorter trips, to no detriment to our health: Indeed, there are few better things we can do to improve our health than to exercise more. We can use public transport more often for commuting. We might even think of designing urban space with people, not steel and chrome, as our core concern.

We should not worship the passenger car, but there is no need to demonize it. It can bring us quickly and efficiently to the places we need or want to be. It is a shelter from the storm in Icelandic winters and a most helpful servant. Icelanders tend to like their cars and the convenience they bring. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The Earth can not deal with hundreds of millions of new CO2-belching cars in the next decades, but it does desperately need the new exciting technology that is the subject of this conference.

Can Iceland be a leading nation in sustainable energy for transport? Certainly. We already have hydrogen and methane cars on the streets and fuel stations to refill them. We have climate-friendly energy and we have scientists and entrepreneurs who are adamant about advancing clean cutting-edge technology. We can provide carbon-free electricity to the entire car-fleet of the Reykjavík area, if it converted to plug-in hybrid technology and reloaded at night ­ without having to construct new power plants. Now, there is a beautiful vision for an environment minister.

But Icelanders also have one of the biggest car fleet per capita in the world. We tend to like big cars, even for small chores. We have increased emissions from road transport by some 30% since 1990. We need to make a turn. We need cooperation between government, business and the general public if we are to move Iceland along the road to truly sustainable transport.

For such cooperation we need ideas and a meeting of minds. The organizers of this conference has done an admirable job of bringing green minds and green cars to Iceland. Events such as this are important ­ they help bring a cleaner future into focus in the eyes of decision-makers, the media and the general public. Let us hope that the gas-guzzler is going the way of the ozone-killing spray can. But let us not just hope. Let us work together to put Iceland in the forefront in the race towards climate-friendly transport.

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