Iceland 101: All the Basic Facts You Need to Know

Akureyri sign post.

Planning a trip to Iceland? Here are some interesting facts and essential information to read before you arrive.

How big is Iceland, and who lives there?

The surface area of Iceland is 103,001 square kilometres [39,769 square miles], and the total population is just under 400,000, with most people living in and around Reykjavík. For the longest time, most people living in Iceland were natives, but in the past two decades, the foreign-born population has grown immensely and is now about 18% of the total. The language spoken is Icelandic, but most people speak English relatively well. 

The Icelandic climate

The climate in Iceland is temperate, meaning that, for the most part, swings in temperature are not huge. In fact, the most reliable thing about the weather here is the cool temperatures. The lowest temperature in Reykjavík during winter is usually -10°C [14°F], and only on rare occasions does it go higher than 20°C [68°F] during summer. For other parts of the country, the average temperature is slightly lower.

In terms of other weather factors, Iceland has it all. If you’re lucky, you might even get the whole spectrum in the span of 24 hours. The weather patterns can be unpredictable, but you can expect to encounter strong winds and storms in fall and winter, along with any form of precipitation. From April and throughout August, storms are considerably less likely to occur, but rain is common. That’s not to say the sun never comes out or the wind never stops, but be prepared by bringing the right clothes!

The power of Icelandic water

Iceland is known for its exceptional quality of water, which you can drink from the tap everywhere you go. In most places, it’s even safe to drink straight from the country’s many springs and rivers. Bring your refillable bottle to avoid spending money on overly expensive bottled water. 

The vast amount of running water has also enabled us to generate significant amounts of electricity, powering the country with green energy all year round. There’s plenty of hot water going around as well, so much so that 90% of Icelandic houses are heated with geothermal energy. The energy is both cheap and renewable, which is why most Icelanders have their radiators on full blast when it’s cold.

The Icelandic currency

Iceland is one of the world’s smallest countries with its own currency: The Icelandic Króna, ISK. Businesses do not accept cash from other countries, but most accept card payments if you don’t want to carry cash. You could almost call that the Icelandic way, as many Icelanders pay solely with their cards, phones or smartwatches. 

Weather warnings and road conditions 

One of the most incredible things about Iceland is its marvellous nature, and we highly recommend exploring it. Whether it’s a trip to the Highland, a short hike, or a tour of one of our glaciers, be sure to bring all the essentials, such as good walking shoes, food, and fluids, as well as warm layers of clothing that you can take off or put on according to the situation. Circumstances, especially the weather, might not be what you’re used to. If travelling outside the capital area, check for weather warnings at the Icelandic Met Office, and the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (vegagerðin) for road conditions.

Medical assistance for tourists in Iceland

You can seek medical attention at the nearest health care centre (heilsugæsla). You can also call 1700, a 24/7 medical advice line, or use the Heilsuvera online chat, open 8am-10pm. In case of emergencies, the number to call is 112. Those with the European Health Insurance Card will be charged the same fee as persons insured in Iceland, but necessary documents must be presented. Others will be charged in full. 

Sale of Green Energy Credits from Iceland Suspended

AIB, the European company responsible for an energy certification system for power companies in the region, has suspended the sale of green energy credits from Iceland. According to a press release from the company, there are indications that a “double claiming of energy attributes was taking place.” The certificates are bought by foreign companies and are a huge source of income for Icelandic energy producers. RÚV reported first.

Last January, Iceland Review reported on the local impact of the energy credit market, which is intended to encourage investment in the production of green energy. While over 99% of energy produced in Iceland comes from renewable sources like hydroelectric and geothermal power, a majority of energy produced in Europe is still nuclear or fossil fuel. Some 90% of energy produced in Iceland is now sold on renewable energy credit markets, meaning consumers of non-renewable energy can purchase green energy credits even if their operations are powered by, for example, coal.

Sale of energy certificates could reach ISK 20 billion per year

AIB suspended the sales due to a suspicion of double counting: that some companies were claiming they had purchased green energy credits from Iceland that had already been sold to another party. AIB pointed to a lack of oversight on the sale of the certificates from Iceland, and that it needs to be better clarified who is responsible for the oversight.

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AIB stated that they intend to help Landsnet (the public company responsible for Iceland’s power transmission system) resolve the issue, “thereby securing Icelandic national interests.” The sale of such certificates nearly reached ISK 1 billion [$7.4 million, €6.7 million] in 2019. The National Power Company of Iceland (Landsvirkjun) estimates that sales could reach ISK 20 billion [$147 million, €133 million] annually.

What is Iceland’s Energy Mix?

green energy iceland

Of all stationary energy produced in Iceland, some 70% is hydroelectric and 30% is geothermal, with a negligible but growing percentage of wind power, at .03%. Fossil fuels accounted for .01% of all energy produced in Iceland in 2021.

Iceland has become well-known for its ability to produce green energy relatively cheaply and efficiently. However, this picture has grown somewhat more complicated in recent years with Iceland’s participation in the international carbon credit market.

Read more: Iceland to Buy Emission Allowances

In figures recently released by the National Energy Authority on 2021 energy usage in Iceland, it has come to light that 63% of energy used in Iceland was produced by fossil fuel, 24% by nuclear power, and only 13% by renewable energy sources. Although the actual electricity flowing into Icelandic homes and businesses is still green, the energy credit market allows foreign companies to “buy” Icelandic green energy. In this way, consumers in Europe might choose to buy green certificates of origin for their energy, even though the energy actually powering their house is sourced from a coal plant.

This market dynamic has led to a curious situation: although the electricity flowing into Icelandic homes and businesses is 100% renewable in origin, Icelandic consumers are now being made to pay extra for green energy certification. Some 90% of energy produced in Iceland is now sold on renewable energy credit markets.

For those interested in Iceland’s energy production, you may want to read more at the National Energy Authority of Iceland.

Does Reykjavík Have Heated Sidewalks?

heated sidewalks reykjavík

When the city of Saskatoon wanted to invest in heated sidewalks in 2013, the CBC wrote: “Imagine a city with snow-free sidewalks all winter long without having to be plowed or shovelled. This isn’t a magical land — it’s Iceland, and the City of Saskatoon is looking towards it and a few other Scandinavian countries for inspiration.”

This may have led to a perception that most streets in Reykjavík, or even all of Iceland, are heated for snow removal. While this is not the case, many of Reykjavík’s busiest streets and sidewalks are, indeed, heated.

Iceland began installing these systems in the early 2000s. And while the energy cost might be prohibitive elsewhere, the availability of environmentally-friendly geothermal energy makes the system more or less environmentally neutral once it’s installed. Additionally, around two thirds of the heated water used in these systems is return water from space heaters. The water in space heaters in homes and businesses throughout Iceland averages 35°C [95°F], making it ideal for this task.

While many new outdoor parking lots feature such heating systems, there are still plenty of sidewalks throughout the capital region without these, as many travellers discovered this winter. 

In general, only new developments and the densest part of downtown are heated. Other municipalities throughout Iceland also have such systems, but the majority can be found in and around Reykavík. Of the 920,000 m2 total area covered by snow removal systems in 2008, 690,000 m2 was in the capital area.

Approximately one-third of these systems are in use in commercial areas, one-third by private homes, and one-third are installed in public areas.

 

Continued Cold Spell: Three Pools in South Iceland Closed

Low cost of electricity in Iceland compared with the rest of Europe

Three public pools in South Iceland will be closed indefinitely today to save hot water, RÚV reports. Iceland’s national utility company does not expect rationing to affect households. Temperatures around the country are expected to drop further this week.

A spell of freezing temperatures

Temperatures in Iceland have barely risen above 0°C over the past days – and the weather is expected to get colder as the week progresses. As noted by RÚV, households in Iceland have been kept warm by an abundance of geothermal energy, and according to information from Veitur – Iceland’s national utility company – the country’s hot-water system is well equipped to handle the cold spell; the system has yet to reach its limit, although Veitur will continue to assess the state of the system on a daily basis.

Even though the country’s hot-water supply is expected to handle the coming cold without incident, Rangárveitur, which manages the hot-water supply in three municipalities in South Iceland, is nearing its limit, a press release from Veitur notes. In light of the cold weather, the local authorities have decided to close three public pools in the area – in Hvolsvöllur, Hella, and Laugaland – starting today. The authorities hope that the pools will only be closed for a few days, or over the coldest period.

Order of priority

As far as additional reductions to the hot-water supply are concerned, a Veitur spokesperson told RÚV that cuts were always made first among large users – bathing lagoons, public pools, and butcheries, e.g. In the event of forced rationing, Veitur screens for “essential services” while also assessing whether relevant water conduits were capable of withstanding closures. As it stands, there is enough hot water to keep Icelandic households warm, although Veitur could be forced to make brief reductions (as in the case of the public pools in the Rangárvellir municipality).

Veitur recommends that homeowners keep their hot-water usage within reasonable limits. Ideally, radiator valves are to be set at 3 (20°C), allowing the thermostatic valve to detect the temperature in the room and adjust accordingly. Windows should be kept closed.

Iceland Helps China Implement Geothermal Energy

Approximately 2.2 million Chinese residents now heat their homes with geothermal energy owing to a collaboration between Iceland and China, RÚV reports. The partnership has led to a steady increase in the use of geothermal energy in the country.

A long and colourful history

In an interview with RÚV, Páll Valdimarsson, senior advisor with Arctic Green Energy, explained that China’s use of geothermal energy has a long and colourful history. It began when a joint venture company between Iceland and China started developing geothermal space heating stations in Xanyang in 2003.

Later, the project saw two school buildings in the area connected to hot-water boreholes. A partnership, owned by Enex and Sinopec (a Chinese oil and gas enterprise based in Beijing), was established around the project, but the company suffered losses during the financial crisis in 2008. Icelandic investors subsequently came on board, eventually renaming the company Arctic Green Energy.

Currently, the geothermal district heating system in China is five to six times larger than Reykjavík Energy, according to Páll Valdimarsson. It provides approximately 2.2 million Chinese residents with heat for their homes and will reduce carbon emissions by 3.5 million tonnes.

Complete carbon neutrality by 2060

“It’s gotten quite big,” Páll observed, “and I mean China’s a populated place; these things become quite big. Today, Arctic Green provides heat for a total of 60 million square meters, and within these 60 million square meters, there are 2.2 million residents.”

Arctic Green has established a relatively simple district-heating network in China: “We’ve developed a technique that utilizes underfloor heating and simple solutions, which means that Chinese homes only require water that is between 52-55°C. That’s a much lower temperature than we use in Iceland.”

By these means, Arctic Green can use comparatively lower amounts of geothermal energy to good use. According to Páll, the Chinese have been developing technique mentioned above with continued success. He expects the projects to grow even larger in the future. “They’re aiming for complete carbon neutrality in China by 2060. They mean it – and they will accomplish it.”

Geo Climate Biodome Depends on Investors

The establishment of a proposed 4,500 m2 [48,438 ft2] cluster of geodesic greenhouses on the edge of Reykjavík’s Elliðaárdalur valley will depend on private investors, RÚV reports. According to the chair of the municipal Planning and Transport Committee, the city is prepared to allocate land for the project and believes it will have a positive impact on recreation in the area, but does not have funds to offer for its development.

BioDome Reykjavík (previously known as ALDIN Biodome) is a project of the Spor í sandinn consultancy firm and, per a profile in The Polar Connection aims to not only be “the world’s first geo climate biodome,” but also the first carbon neutral one. Capitalizing on the wealth of geothermal energy available in Iceland as well as the country’s “fertile volcanic soil,” BioDome Reykjavík will “…create a lush, verdant oasis beneath a glazed dome…A place that will grow its own food, supporting indoor Mediterranean as well as tropical environments, for the health, nourishment and enjoyment of all who visit.” In addition to its rich plant life, the plans also include a plaza, specialty restaurant, and marketplace focusing on Icelandic produce.

Initial plans for the biodome were approved by the city in December 2017, after criticism from people living in the area led to a reduction of the height of the domes and the removal of proposed buildings on the west side of the site. The proposed parking lot was also scaled down. Spor í sandinn founder and CEO Hjördís Sigurðardóttir says the plans for the project have gone through five or six drafts and changed a great deal in response to a site changes as well; initially, the project was proposed to be located in the more central Laugardalur neighbourhood, but this was rejected by the city.

Having received an initial round of investment during the planning and design phase, Hjördís is currently looking to secure the next phase of financial support. In her interview with RÚV on Wednesday, she wouldn’t give a specific figure of how much the project was projected to cost but conceded that biodomes were “expensive structures.”

See project visualization photos and read more about the proposal for BioDome Reykjavík (in English) on the Spor í sandinn website, here.