REYKJAVIK At first glance, the red ship hardly
looks like a herald of the future. Even its owner admits the
hull needs a coat of paint and the interior some spit and
But in a few weeks, the Elding -- Icelandic for "Lightning"
-- will be transformed into the world's first hydrogen-equipped
commercial vessel, the latest sign that Iceland is pushing hard
to become the first nation to break free from the constraints
of fossil fuel.
Come April, visitors to Europe's northernmost capital will
get a taste of that future by taking whale-watching tours
aboard the ship, or renting one of the world's first
hydrogen-powered hire cars.
The conversion of the Elding to hydrogen power will
initially be confined to the use of a fuel cell to power the
engine that runs its lighting, but for 43 euros ($62.26) a
trip, the ship will offer whale-watchers unprecedented peace.
When the crew spot whales at sea, they shut down the main
engines to let people hear the mammals swim and blow water --
an experience owner Vignir Sigursveinsson said had been marred
in the past by the rumble of a diesel auxiliary engine below.
"When we have the hydrogen machine, the boat will be
completely soundless, which will make the experience of seeing
the whales in their natural habitat even more magical,"
Sigursveinsson told Reuters.
Besides appealing to tourists seeking greener travel, the
155-passenger ship will take Iceland a step closer to its goal
of converting its entire transport system to hydrogen by 2050.
Jon Bjorn Skulason, head of Icelandic New Energy, the
venture between companies, academia and the government
shepherding the process, said the ship would help show whether
the fuel could work at sea: essential if Iceland wants to
convert its fishing fleet, one of the world's largest.
"We think, with the testing we're doing over the next two
or three years, our society will be quite well prepared to
accept this technology on a larger scale," Skulason said.
Icelanders seem ready to embrace hydrogen as a fuel.
Skulason cited one survey that showed 93-percent public
acceptance, a fact that he attributed to the relatively few
negative associations the gas has for Icelanders.
In Japan, it is sometimes linked in the public
consciousness to atomic bombs, while for some in the United
States it recalls the 1937 Hindenburg airship disaster.
With limited global supplies of oil and gas and mounting
worries about greenhouse gas emissions, the race to find an
ideal green transportation fuel is gaining urgency.
Since hydrogen can be made from plain water and produces
only electricity and water vapor when burned, its backers see
it as a prime candidate.
But producing it from water takes electricity: according to
2005 data from the International Energy Agency, 67 percent of
the world's electric power still comes from non-renewable
sources such as coal, gas and other fossil fuels.
Two-thirds of electricity in volcanic Iceland is already
derived from renewable sources -- its plentiful rivers and
waterfalls and the geothermal heat that boils beneath its
This has allowed the country to break new ground in
hydrogen testing, with the world's first commercial hydrogen
refueling station in 2003 and the first hydrogen-powered rental
cars last year.
"It has a very exotic energy system where hydrogen could
make sense," said Dolf Gielen, senior energy analyst at the
International Energy Agency's Energy Technology Office.
The North Atlantic country with a population of just
300,000 is in big-league company in testing the scope for
Countries including the United States, Japan, Canada,
Germany and France are also exploring the fuel, but Iceland
leads many with its progress on dry land.
The hydrogen filling station, at first reserved for three
buses in a European Union-backed pilot, opened to cars late
last year and will fill the fuel tanks of the Elding.
Now one of dozens in the world, the station looks similar
to its petrol-dispensing counterpart, but is instead hooked up
to water, and power to separate the water into its components,
hydrogen and oxygen.
The oxygen is dispersed, while the hydrogen is compressed
for piping directly into vehicles.
Skulason said hydrogen was safe when treated with respect,
but people would need to learn its peculiarities.
"Not long ago you could see people smoking when they were
refueling cars," he said, adding that now drivers know to treat
gasoline with respect.
"We're not saying hydrogen is more or less dangerous than
gasoline. It's just a different thing."
The station's expansion coincided with the November arrival
in Reykjavik of 10 specially adapted Toyota Priuses. The cars,
which charge their batteries with internal combustion engines
that burn hydrogen instead of petrol, joined a Daimler Chrysler
fuel-cell car imported in mid-2007.
Seven went to Icelandic companies for testing in their
corporate fleets, while three went to the rental company Hertz,
which now offers hydrogen-fuelled rentals.
Skulason expects to see up to 20 hydrogen-powered cars on
the road by year-end and twice that after 2-1/2 years. By 2030
or 2035, he believes most of Iceland's vehicles could be
hydrogen-fuelled, although this depends on the arrival of
So far, he said, customer feedback had been positive.
Margret Lindal Steinthorsdottir, marketing manager of Hertz
in Iceland, said she has had queries about the rentals from all
over the world, although few have led to bookings so far.
"But we remain optimistic. The weather has been awful, the
tourist season has not begun and the cars are expensive to
rent," she said.
Skulason said Icelandic New Energy made a forecast seven
years ago for how long it would take Iceland to convert fully.
"We're maybe somewhere between 12 and 18 months behind
schedule. So if you think about a 50-year timeframe, that's
very little," he said.
Full conversion will take time. It will need changes to
infrastructure, affordable hydrogen cars -- now as much as five
times as expensive as conventional ones -- and, in Iceland's
case, a viable shipping technology.
"Hydrogen may work for whale-watching, but it is
challenging for most shipping applications because of the long
distances traveled and therefore significant amounts of
hydrogen storage volume needed," said the IEA's Gielen.
(Reporting by Kristin Arna Bragadottir, writing by Sarah
Edmonds; editing by Sara Ledwith and Andrew Dobbie)