REYKJAVIK, ICELAND — Iceland is a refreshingly informal country. Interviewing the president didn’t require much more than an e-mailed letter and a phone call or two. And when I went to the historic presidential residence at Bessastadir (imagine the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, minus the Republicans and the heavy security) the taxi dropped me off at the front door.

           

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the president a committed EV advocate. On all levels, and especially since the crippling financial crisis descended, this country is extremely eager to stop importing expensive imported oil for its transportation fleet. Iceland heats its houses and generates its electricity from a combination of clean geothermal and hydroelectric power, and both are very cheap for Icelanders.

But cars (and fishing boats, for that matter) remain a big hurdle. First-time visitors are shocked to discover that, despite $7.80 a gallon fuel, lots of Icelanders run around in huge SUVs suitable for cruising the volcanic highlands. Switching to EVs would be a big step, and President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is solidly behind it.

The first beachhead is a fleet of Mitsubishi I-MiEV electric cars, and though Mitsubishi executives were in town for the Driving Sustainability ’09 conference I also attended, the timetable is still a bit vague. Mitsubishi’s relationship with Iceland is 30 years old, because the huge Japanese conglomerate also makes the turbines for Iceland’s geothermal industry. “Given our history, it became useful to talk about broadening our cooperation,” Grímsson told me. “And because of our cheap electricity and the need to deal with climate change, it makes sense for us to expand into electric cars.”

The Mitsubishi I-MiEV will be a great car for Iceland, but there are others. Icelandic businessman Gisli Gislason of Northern Lights Energy says he’s scouring the globe, hoping to score 1,000 EVs to fast-track the country’s move into electric cars. President Grímsson told me that Gislason’s fast-paced approach is “shaking up Iceland in a very entrepreneurial way,” and “sending a important signal to the rest of the world."

According to Sturla Sighvatsson, managing director of Northern Lights, fast charging could be viable in Iceland with only 20 strategic locations (each with two to four stations). And to replace the 210,000 cars on the road with EVs would require only 50 megawatts of electric power generation—no great challenge for Iceland.

There are very few EVs in Iceland now. I drove a fairly miserable Indian-made Reva in Reykjavik, and that’s one of the few you can buy right now (a handful have been sold). The country is poised for rapid change, and seldom has it made more strategic sense. Iceland has flirted with a hydrogen-based energy economy, but it’s much more bullish on battery EVs now.

Getting the cars on the road, even in test programs, remains the biggest challenge. “We have all kinds of weather for testing cars in Iceland,” Grímsson told me, “and a great combination of rural roads and cosmopolitan settings.”

Carmakers and charging system operators I talk to are very excited about the possibility of operating in Iceland. They ask for emails and telephone numbers. With the right contacts, this revolution will begin in earnest.

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