Walking out of Keflavik airport as the arctic breeze hit my face at 50 km per hour, I thought to myself, “I love my job.” A job that makes a tropical citizen like me enjoy the hospitality of the very warm Icelanders and allows me to learn from their experience is hard to top. With 320,000 citizens and just the size of the U.S. state of Kentucky, subpolar Iceland has a lot to teach us development practitioners.
We are only beginning to put together a vision for how to deal with the dilemma of a warming-- and therefore more unpredictable and punishing--climate and ever increasing energy needs. But Iceland has long ago put its mind to the challenge and now lives productively and peacefully in an environment that throws at it tremendous challenges and great gifts.
My appreciation of Iceland's strategy to make use of its environment and harness its renewable energy rose as I visited Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant. Feeling the rumbles of the earth and looking at the steam that puffed from its heart against the backdrop of a volcanic landscape, I was in awe both of nature and the people who have embraced its imposing power.
I heard how 95% of Iceland is heated with volcanic hot water and 25% of the country’s electricity is generated in geothermal plants. I heard how if it were not for geothermal, Iceland’s economy would not have survived the crisis. Its energy needs would have made that fiscally impossible.
Today, Iceland is trying to figure out how to sell and export all the energy the country could produce. As with many natural resources, developing and using geothermal energy is complex. But Iceland offers many lessons to developed and developing countries that we can draw upon to increase access to geothermal heat and power and to manage the inherent technical and financial risks of scaling up this renewable source of energy.
But here is the good news -- it can be done. What works in Iceland can work in developing countries. Kenya, for example, sits on a geothermal juggernaut. Thirteen percent of all electricity in the country is already generated by geothermal plants, and, with help from the World Bank, the plan is to boost that number to 30% in just a few short years. As a result, 150 million households and many businesses could get affordable and reliable power soon. And achieving that will involve tapping into the many lessons from Iceland's geothermal experience. As I made my way back to Keflavik Airport through a picturesque snowy blizzard, it occurred to me that this is truly development at its best.