Energy transition on the Arctic Circle

The small island of Grímsey sits exactly on the Arctic Circle, and is the only part of Iceland to be geographically in the Arctic.

It may be remote – even by Icelandic standards – and it may be sparsely populated, but with its pristine nature and wildlife the islanders are keen to contribute to the preservation of nature.

Recently the municipality of Akureyri, which since 2009 includes Grímsey, took a landmark decision in consultation with the 75-strong population. In the next few years the island aims to turn its back on fossil-fuels and increasingly embrace renewable energy.

Puffin flying, Iceland

“Grímsey is very special since the Artic Circle crosses the island, which is our northernmost settlement,” says Ásthildur Sturludóttir, the Mayor of Akureyri.

“It is both very costly and polluting to use fossil-fuel based energy and it doesn´t rhyme at all with the untouched nature, copious bird-life and flourishing society in Grímsey.”

The lion´s share of electricity in Iceland comes from renewable energy sources, accounting for roughly 99% of the total consumption. In addition, around 90% of Icelandic households are heated with geothermal water.

“We have, with considerable costs, tried to drill for warm water,” explains Jóhannes Henningsson the chairman of the local citizens´ council. “Since it wasn´t successful, we had to try other options.

Each household has independently had to rely on diesel-driven generators to provide heating and electricity. The annual consumption is around 400,000 litres and emissions that amount to 1,000 tons of greenhouse gasses.

Initially, two windmills have been bought and will be installed to generate in total 30,000 kw hours annually. In addition, solar panels will be installed with the capacity of producing 10,000 kw hours yearly, with each household given solar panels free of charge for personal use. This will cut the use of diesel by 20,000 litres.

The biggest challenge for wind-energy in Grímsey is actually too much wind.

“Yes we have a lot of wind,” says Henningsson. “We tried windmills in the early 80s, but it was problematic because if it was too windy, they couldn´t handle it. However, since then there has been a lot of technical progress.”

Signposts on island of Grimsey, Iceland

Global Champion

Iceland has set 2050 as a target to end the use of fossil-fuel energy. “It is an ambitious target, which hopefully will be reached. If our plans of energy transition in Grímsey are successful the island will have become green and ecologically friendly well before the 2050 target-date,” says Mayor Sturludóttir.

Recently, Iceland was appointed a global champion enabling SDGs through inclusive, just energy transitions as part of the UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy. The UN is launching a year of “Energy Action”, kicking off substantive preparations for a Heads of State and Government High-level Dialogue on Energy in September 2021.

Midnight sun – darkness at noon

When it comes to solar energy there can hardly ever be too much of it, but since Grímsey is right on the Arctic Circle it enjoys midnight sun. On the other hand at the end of December sunlight is rare. “It can become quite dark here,” admits Henningsson. “A lot of lights are necessary to light up the Arctic night and a concerted effort has been made to introduce LED light bulbs on lamp posts and in homes, as well as improving home-isolation to conserve heat and energy.”

Chess in the long dark winter nights 

Perhaps, it was thanks to the long dark winter nights that the islanders became well-known for producing excellent chess players. A well-off American, Willard Fiske, heard of the blooming chess life in Grímsey in the 19th century. An authority on Northern-European languages, Fiske, a professor at Cornell University and chess promoter in the US, donated dozens of chess sets and thousands of books, including chess literature, to the island´s school library.

But the school has been closed due to the dwindling population and the children go to school on the mainland.

“We are not as good as we used to be,” admits Henningsson,” but chess is still played quite a lot.”

The long dark winter nights will remain but at least the chess sets will increasingly be illuminated by electric light coming from environmentally friendly sources.

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