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Islandic sheep foraging in denuded highland pastures
Icelandic sheep forage among what were once lush highland pastures 1000 years ago. Centuries of overgrazing led to soil erosion that threatened the existence of the isolated Viking colony in the far North Atlantic. Only cooperation and herd limits saved the population from collapse. Today, Iceland's biggest exports are marine products caught by a working fleet of some 2,000 diesel-powered fishing trawlers.

Sustainable Iceland: The Prequel

EV World’s editor heads to Iceland to discover its past, present and energy future.

By Bill Moore

Tomorrow I set off for Iceland in quest of a better understanding of that island's energy future to see if it can serve as a model for a world less enslaved to the tyrant petroleum. In doing so, I will be following in the footsteps of people who sought their own form of freedom from tyranny over a millennia ago.

Vikings seeking refuge from the rule of Harold I of Norway colonized Iceland in the mid-9th century and have survived and thrived on their island of fire and ice despite its fragile environment and stormy seas. When they arrived, one-quarter of the island was forested, but within fifty years 80 percent of its trees had been cleared for pastures and fields. Today, only 4 percent of the original forests remain.

As a direct consequence, Icelandic culture teetered on the brink of disaster, largely because of their ignorance and relative isolation.

Although the Vikings are remembered by history as marauders, they saw themselves primarily as farmers, bringing with them their livestock and grains. What they eventually discovered was Iceland's soil was too fragile for their ancient farming practices brought over from southern Norway.

Writes anthropologist Jared Diamond in Collapse, "Once the natural carpet of grassland had been cleared and browsed off, the soil originating as windblown ash [from the island's active volcanoes] was now exposed to wind erosion.

Additionally, "Once the original trees had been removed, grazing by sheep, and rooting by pigs... prevented seedlings from regenerating." He observes, "As one drives across Iceland today, it is striking to notice how the occasional clumps of trees still standing are mostly ones enclosed by fences to protect them from sheep."

"When the settlers finally realized what was happening, they did take corrective action. They stopped throwing away big pieces of wood, stopped keeping ecologically destructive pigs and goats, and abandoned much of the highlands. Groups of neighboring farms cooperated in jointly making decisions critical for preventing erosion, such as the decision about when in the late spring the grass growth warranted taking the sheep up to communally owned high-altitude mountain pastures for the summer, and when in the fall to bring the sheep back down. Farmers sought to reach agreement on the maximum number of sheep that each communal pasture could support, and how that number was to be divided among sheep quotas for the individual farmers."

The island's precarious agrarian economy, built largely on the export of its wool during the Middle Ages, began to shift away from farming and herding, to fishing, but it wouldn't be until the beginning of the 20th century that Iceland would develop its own fishing fleet and by 1950, 90 percent of its exports would be marine products.

Continues Diamond, "thanks to its abundance of fish, geothermal power, and hydroelectric power from all its rivers, and relieved of the necessity to scrape up timber for making ships (now constructed of metal), Europe's former poorest country has become one of the riches countries on a per-capita basis, a great success story..."

Which is why one of the biggest challenges facing Iceland in its quest for energy independence and freedom from petroleum, is how to power its two-thousand fishing trawlers, which are dependent on imported diesel fuel. It's one thing to power buses and cars in Reykjavik with hydrogen, it's quite another to fuel a 3,000 ton fishing trawler that might be at sea for weeks with it.

That is one of the questions I hope to find answers to when I travel to Iceland the week of May 15-18, 2006 at the invitation of General Motors who is sponsoring the trip for a number of journalist as a way to highlight various pathways towards a hydrogen future.

One possible solution is to use two of the island's most abundant resources: geothermal steam and carbon dioxide to make not hydrogen but dimethyl ether or DME. Here's how it might work. Iceland has already set itself on a course to make hydrogen by water electrolysis using its vast geothermal resources. That hydrogen be used to power fuel cells to run motor vehicles on the island. It can also be used as the feedstock to produce methanol (CH3OH) by taping into the island‘s immense reservoir of volcano-originating carbon dioxide .

In a scheme spelled out in Nobel laureate Dr. George Olah's new book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, hydrogen and carbon dioxide can be reacted together to make methanol, which can be burned in any conventional car engine. For compression-cycle or diesel engines, you can dehydrate the methanol to from dimethyl ether, a remarkably clean, soot-free diesel fuel substitute. Either approach could help solve the hydrogen storage problem; methanol as a liquid fuel with about half the energy content of petroleum, DME as a liquefied gas similar to LPG or propane. While trawler's would have to be modified to hold more fuel -- or not stay out to sea as long -- they could operate closer to their normal routine than by using gaseous hydrogen, and without replacing their diesel or turbine engines.

Eventually, as fuel cells come down in cost and improve in reliability and durability, the methanol could power a promising technology called Direct Methanol Fuel Cell or DMFC.

Interestingly, Denmark, which once ruled Iceland, has already experimented with a DME-fuelled diesel bus built by Swedish automaker, Volvo. According to Olah, Japan -- another island nation heavily dependent on fossil fuels -- is investigating DME. He also notes that, "General Electric showed DME to be an excellent fuel for gas turbines, with emissions and performances comparable to those of natural gas."

Whatever the future holds for Iceland, I think its safe to assume that having survived for over 1100 years, the people of Iceland will make sure they find ways to continue to do so beyond the age of oil, be it hydrogen, methanol or a combination of both.

Watch for future reports and photos here on EV World from my upcoming trip to this remote island near the Arctic Circle.

Times Article Viewed: 21210
Published: 12-May-2006

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