CLEAN ENERGY: A Foundation of New Turkish-Icelandic Cooperation


Ólafur Ragnar GRIMSSON*

This article is based on a speech delivered at the OECD Conference in Istanbul on June 28, 2007

The need for clean energy has become a priority for all nations but some are in this respect better placed than others. Turkey like Iceland is blessed with a great geothermal potential which it has not so far utilized in a significant way.

During my meetings in Istanbul with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Minister of Energy Hilmi Güler and the Mayor of Istanbul Kadir Topbas, I offered to Turkey the technological and management experience that Iceland has developed in this area in order to enable Turkey to become a prominent clean energy country.

Iceland has due to our development in the last fifty years achieved a global leadership in the utilization of geothermal power. We are now ready to create joint projects with others and thus contribute to the fight against climate change.

Recent months have brought both a positive transformation and alarming news in the global debate on climate change. A transformation thanks to the consensus that now has been established among national leaders and the world's foremost scientists. Alarming news because the evidence increasingly shows that climate change is occurring faster, and with potentially more dramatic and disastrous consequences, than was formerly thought.

We wasted valuable years because the doubters prevented the international community from uniting, but now at last the nay-sayers have retreated. All nations now recognize the threat we face, the alarming security challenge to the entire world which is now on the horizon.

The question is no longer: Is it true? – but: How much time do we have; what actions can we take?

Some scientists are even telling us that we have only 10 – 15 years to change course, to transform our economies and energy systems in order to prevent disastrous climate change, less than two decades to eliminate the greatest security threat of our generation.

Can it be done? That is the question; the most fundamental economic challenge facing our nations and the entire world.

Of course there are no easy solutions, no single road to success. The outcome will depend on many measures, international actions, common policies, global agreements – but above all on a new vision, on the inspired conviction that nations, regions, cities and homes can change their economic behaviour sufficiently to create basis for new sustainable and sound energy systems that neither threaten the security of billions of people in different parts of the world nor destroy the environmental viability of Mother Earth.

Increasingly, it has become my mission to offer the experience of my nation as an inspiration and encouragement to others, as a proof that it is possible in a few decades to transform the entire energy system of a nation.

While every country is unique in certain ways, Iceland is not a special case with regard to the clean energy potential. If we could do it, so can others – especially if it is borne in mind that for centuries, Iceland was literally the poorest country in Europe and was entirely dependent on fossil fuel. Now we have achieved one of the highest living standards in the world and enjoy extraordinary prosperity and progress, partly because we transferred our energy dependence from coal and oil to clean energy sources.

During my youth, the capital city of Iceland, Reykjavik, was covered by smoke from coal fires and the coal depot took up the largest part of the harbour area.

Now, 100% of our electricity is generated from clean energy sources and over 70% of our total energy needs, including cars and shipping, are met by renewable resources. Iceland is now in a position to become carbon-neutral and oil-free ahead of most other countries, and can demonstrate how this can be achieved.

Thanks to policy priorities and actions taken by local authorities and the national government, by research institutions and the business community, the technological progress in this area has been outstanding. What began half a century ago as a heating system for a small number of houses has been transformed into an energy production structure on a large scale . An aluminium smelter in Western Iceland now receives its energy primarily from a new geothermal electricity station; is the first aluminium smelter in the world to be powered in this way.

Clean energy has not only given our economy extraordinary long-term strength; it is also turning out to be a magnet for foreign investment. In the new global economy, clean energy is extraordinarily good for business. Nations, regions and cities that can provide clean energy on an long-term basis have a clear competitive edge in the international market.

The technological and managerial know-how that Iceland has acquired in the development of our clean energy systems, and especially in geothermal technology, has also provided us in recent years with opportunities to establish cooperation and joint projects in many different parts of the world.

Icelandic energy and engineering companies, banks and investment funds have been involved in, and are now engaged in such projects in China and the United States, in Russia, Central Europe and East Africa – to name some examples.

These endeavours, based on clean energy investments and experience, are fast becoming a major part of our global business engagements.

Recently a delegation form the third largest energy company in China, Sinopec, visited Iceland in order to lay the foundation for further long-term cooperation on clean energy projects in China. In April and May I visited Washington for extensive discussions with both the Department of Energy and the leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives on how to explore the vast potential of geothermal energy in the United States. On May 25th a new bill on geothermal power was introduced in the US Senate; a similar bill was also introduced in House.

It is a misunderstanding, and one that is frequently encountered, that only a few nations can transform their energy systems from coal and oil to geothermal, and that Iceland is one of a small number of countries with this potential.

On the contrary, there are over 70 countries in the world that could enjoy the utilization of vast geothermal resources, among them some of the largest economies, including the USA, China, India, Russia, Japan, and Turkey has in this respect also a great potential.

New drilling technologies which Iceland has developed in the last two decades now enable us to go down as far as three kilometres and it is planned to extend the depth to five kilometres in the coming years. This means that the potential for finding and exploiting geothermal resources is fundamentally altered all over the world.

Furthermore, new technologies which could open up low and medium temperature areas for electricity production from geothermal resources seem to be very promising. The ocean floor also harbours great geothermal resources. The technology for ocean exploration developed by the oil and gas industries could make the utilization of the geothermal resources under the seabed one of the most fascinating clean energy potentials of the 21st century.

Iceland can serve as a laboratory for trying out new ideas, and as a forum for clean energy progress, dialogue and discussions; especially since the country is not a unique case. On the contrary, it proves, what can be achieved, often against heavy odds and in difficult conditions.

The Icelandic experience shows that the technological and economic forces of our times can indeed prevent climate change by transforming energy systems in responsible and business-friendly ways.

It demonstrates that we are not faced with a hopeless task, and that a clean energy future can bring enormous economic success.

In the light of my productive discussions with the leaders of Turkey during my visit to Istanbul, I am looking forward to a successful cooperation between our countries in the exploration and development of clean energy resources which the geological nature of Turkey has created in abundance.

* President of Iceland