Iceland is famous for being the first country in the world to have a 100 percent renewable electricity supply, relying on its abundance of hydro and geothermal power. It's also, on average, the furthest independent nation from the equator, so solar power wouldn't be expected to play any part of this. Yet even so close to the Arctic circle, solar has found off-grid applications.
Iceland's capital and largest city Reykjavik has a high car ownership, narrow streets, and an abundance of tourists; parking could easily get out of control.
The council has established electrically powered parking meters in busy parts of the city, but rather than going to the expense of connecting them to the grid, they've chosen to rely on A4-sized solar panels.
That wouldn't be surprising in say, Phoenix, Arizona, but Reykjavik lies at 64º North – closer to the poles than any other capital of a sovereign state. December averages just half an hour of sunshine a day, and with the Sun only a few degrees above the horizon there is minimal charge.
IFLScience contacted Reykjavik Council to ask why. Spokesperson Albert Heimisson told us: “All meters we have installed in the last 5-6 years have been solar. The batteries in the solar meters do not last the darkest part of the year, we usually have to change batteries 1-2 times in the midwinter.“ There can also be problems with the solar meters freezing when it gets really cold. Nevertheless, Heimisson said the council had found it was still cheaper to have someone bring the batteries in for recharging occasionally than to pay the extra installation costs of grid connection.
Parking meters don't need a lot of electricity, but Iceland's national parks host even more surprising solar applications. Iceland's abundant waterfalls have proven a major attraction for its booming tourist industry, including the Dettifoss Falls – the most powerful in Europe, based on a combination of height (45 meters or 150 feet) and average water volume.
The falls have yet to get the cafe and gift shop of more accessible tourist attractions, but the Vatnajökull National Park service installed a toilet block, and needed to power it. Instead of a small turbine in the powerful river or a micro-wind generator, the park service opted for solar panels and a large battery. This despite the falls being less than a degree south of the Arctic circle – the Sun barely gets above the horizon at all in winter. Similar systems are seen elsewhere.
Iceland's use of solar is tiny compared to countries where it is transforming energy access, or dominating new installations, but next time someone says solar can't work when the Sun doesn't shine, ask yourself whether the proposed location is sunnier than Iceland in winter.