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A green lesson from Iceland

Since the 1970s, Iceland has gone from relying on imported coal for 75 percent of its energy to getting more than 82 percent of its energy from geothermal and hydro power.

The Svartsengi geothermal plant in southwest Iceland churns out clouds of water vapor. Even up close to the stacks, there is only the slightest tinge of sulfur in the air.

Jonas Moody

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Both US presidential candidates have called for an end to America’s dependence on foreign oil and more investment in renewable resources, but even Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama said his plan to stop using Middle Eastern oil might sound like “pie in the sky” talk.

Calls for greater energy independence date back to President Richard Nixon. Yet since then, the amount of foreign oil imported by the US has more than doubled.

But since the 1970s, Iceland, just 3,000 miles off the US East Coast, has gone from relying on imported coal for 75 percent of its energy to, as of 2007, getting more than 82 percent of its energy from geothermal and hydropower. Oil accounts for only 16 percent of its energy needs and is used only to power cars and its fishing fleet.

“It’s our goal to be a carbon-free and oil-free country by 2050,” says Össur Skarphédinsson, Iceland’s minister of industry and energy.

These days in Iceland, little is certain. In just the past few months, the economy has imploded, the currency bottomed out, and job security is nil. Despite all of the economic turmoil, Iceland can rely on its energy.

As the rest of the world struggles amid the economic meltdown, Iceland may offer lessons about the value and attainability of energy independence.

Located on the mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American plate and the Eurasian plate are furiously pulling apart, the island is home to 320,000 imperturbable souls who put up with arguably the most rambunctious 40,000 square miles of ground on the face of the Earth.

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