Water, water everywhere: Iceland and the hydropower solution

For many of us, mention of Iceland probably calls no more to mind than Scandinavian Vikings and unpronounceable volcanoes. But there is a notable energy benchmark being achieved in this tiny Nordic state: Iceland draws 100% of its electric power needs from renewable resources, specifically hydropower and geothermal plants. How has Iceland made their energy grid completely sustainable, and what lessons from this achievement could be applied to U.S. energy policy?

Iceland's Vatnsfell hydropower station by lake Thorisvatn.

Iceland’s Vatnsfell hydropower station by lake Thorisvatn.

As mentioned, Iceland’s renewable energy comes from two sources: hydropower and geothermal plants. While it is true that a great deal of Iceland’s geothermal power could not be replicated in the U.S. — we’re just a little bit bigger by land size and have just a few less volcanoes — hydropower is a resource that America could tap more fully.

Hydropower, which according to the National Energy Authority of Iceland provides 75% of the country’s electrical needs, is produced by over 50 stations scattered across Iceland’s coasts and rivers. The electricity produced by these plants is enough to provide a majority of the country’s energy needs — and is also sold by the government at discount rates to manufacturers as an incentive to bring more industry to the country.

Apart from being an economic incentive, hydropower also has a multitude of environmental benefits. According to the United States Geological Survey, hydroelectric power burns no fuel and thus produces minimal pollution. The technology needed also exists currently and needs no further development — in addition, upkeep and operational costs are low.

Norfork Dam, located in northern Arkansas

Norfork Dam, located in northern Arkansas

Hydropower is not without its downsides, however: a very heavy investment cost coincides with potential disruption to natural waterways and ecosystems because of dam construction. So the question is: how does the U.S. take full advantage of its hydroelectric power a la Iceland, without breaking the bank or disrupting our fragile ecosystems?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the answer may be within reach. A 2012 report states that the U.S. has about 54,000 available dams which could be equipped to process hydroelectric power. This would mean that the heavy construction costs and environmental impacts are mitigated, since the dams already exist. The Department of Energy says that such an upgrade could produce over 12 gigawatts. Apart from this being over ten times the amount of energy needed by Marty McFly to travel back to the future, it could be a suitable enough amount to bring our energy policy into the future: the Department estimates that adopting such a solution would power over 4 million homes and help to lead the U.S. to generating 80% of its electricity from clean resources by 2035.

So yes, the U.S. may be short on volcanoes that help our Nordic neighbors to the north accomplish their unbelievably clean energy policy. However, we still have untapped potential when it comes to hydropower — and the means to capitalize it are well-within our reach.