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How to expand renewable energy: six lessons from Sweden

6 minutes to read

Have you ever thought that your body can become a clean source of power? Every day you consume food, which your organism transforms into energy. Some of it is needed to support life, but eighty per cent escapes outside in the form of heat. Even at rest, you normally emit about 100W. Just imagine that you could absorb this wasted heat and, to the disappointment of your energy company, start powering, for example, your laptop computer (60W) free of charge. Does this sound like a sci-fi fantasy? Definitely not, if you are a Swede. The technology for capturing excess body heat has already been employed for a number of years at Stockholm’s Central Station. And it has significantly lowered the energy costs of the nearby office building, to which the system delivers heating.

Imagination-defying energy solutions is not the only thing that can wow you in Sweden. Today this flourishing economy is one of the least dependent on fossil fuels states, too. Renewable energy (hydropower, biomass and wind) satisfies more than half of the country’s energy demand, nuclear power meets another 13%. Besides, it also knows how to manage waste super smartly: 99% of its household garbage is either recycled, or used to produce energy. No wonder, Sweden is ranked one of the cleanest countries in the world. The Swedish achievements are impressive. Can other countries repeat its success? Sweden is ready to offer them some lessons! 

45 years ago Sweden used to rely extremely heavily on cheap foreign oil, which was almost the only source for heating and transportation and also a fuel for power generation. Everything looked okay until the oil shocks of the 1970s, that led to price volatility and supply interruptions. The oil crises really scared Swedes, who hate being dependent on others. The Swedish government vowed to substitute oil with energy sources that could be found in Sweden and was ready to spend whatever it takes to achieve it. With almost no hydrocarbon reserves available in Sweden and no potential for further expansion of hydropower, the only viable option to replace oil was nuclear and renewable energy. So, lesson #1: Expansion of any energy source in the first place requires strong political support and state subsidies.  

The first thing the Swedish government did was investing in nuclear and clean energy R&D. It was found out that nuclear power could significantly boost the electricity generating capacity, while large Swedish forests would become a perfect source for heating. Nuclear power started expanding in Sweden. At the same time oil boilers were redesigned to use biomass (mostly forest residues and later on also waste). Thanks to the district heating networks, which delivered heating to many houses in Sweden, the biggest part of the population was now warmed up not by oil but biomass. Thus lesson #2: Large energy delivery systems can facilitate and speed up the nationwide energy transition.

The next important step was a change in mindset of Swedes. Will people support the energy transition, if they know little about renewable energy? Unlikely. The Swedish government introduced the so called ‘energy advisors’. These peoples’ job is to spread information about benefits of renewable energy and to give free and impartial advice to the public on how to become more environmentally friendly. As a result, today there is hardly a person in Sweden who has not heard about clean energy while the majority of Swedes strongly support development of renewables. The growing interest in sustainability also led to the opening of dozens of university programs all across Sweden, which offer courses on anything from engineering to economics of clean energy. Hence lesson #3: If citizens are aware of renewable energy advantages, they are more likely to support the energy transition, as well as to change their own energy behavior.  

But as Michael Jackson sang, “nothing good ever comes easy”. Sweden also had to deal with the biggest disadvantage of renewable energy. It was (and often still is) way more expensive than hydrocarbons and nuclear power. Apart from direct subsidies, the Swedish government has also come up with some smart solutions, which support renewables but do not require spending state budget money. In the heating sector, in 1991 it introduced the “carbon tax”, which is levied on CO2 emissions and thus makes using dirty oil more costly than biomass. Years later, in 2003 the government also established the “green certificate market” to back renewable power producers struggling with low electricity prices. The idea of the “market” is that green power producers receive a certificate for every MWh of renewable electricity they generate, while electricity suppliers are obliged to buy such certificates. Ultimately, the certificates’ cost is included in electricity bills of power consumers - of Swedish businesses and ordinary Swedes, so they are the ones paying for the expansion of clean power. So, lesson #4: State regulatory mechanisms like taxes can alter economic conditions and make renewables cheaper than conventional energy sources; and lesson #5: End consumers can be sponsors of renewable energy expansion.

Sweden has achieved indeed exciting results in developing renewable energy. But has it done something in a wrong way? Some would argue that “yes”. That is why the last lesson from Sweden is an example of a potential pitfall to avoid. Surveys show that while the majority of Swedes strongly support the spread of renewables, few of them actually do anything....to save energy they consume! Finally, lesson #6: Developing renewables should not overshadow other important things like reduction of energy use and increase in energy efficiency.

Can we learn these lessons and repeat the Swedish success in expanding renewables? If we want to curb climate change, we should better rush to do it.