Sweden without gas

Kalix heat power plant, one of many biomass facilities in Sweden. Photo: Vattenfall/flickr.com/cc by-nc-nd

Natural gas is not a necessary part of the fuel mix. Most of Sweden, including Stockholm, has no natural gas. The combined pressure of environmental NGOs and farmers stopped gas and led to the development of biomass instead.

In most of Europe, fossil natural gas is considered a necessity. Not so in Sweden. Only a small part of the country, essentially the coastal region from Malmö in the south to Gothenburg in the southwest, is connected to the European gas grid, from Denmark.

Environmental NGOs have opposed extensions of the grid since 1990. They have seen it as an obstacle to the development of renewable energy, especially bioenergy. And they won that battle, together with the agricultural lobby LRF.

For about 50 years there have been plans to build a natural gas grid covering much of Sweden, taking gas from Russia or Norway. Various consortia ran big lobbying campaigns several times, but little came of it.

In 2013, Sweden used some 12 TWh of natural gas, slightly more than two per cent of primary energy.

Gas is hardly used for heating homes. Swedes use district heating, or heat pumps, or electric heating, or wood, or oil to heat their homes. The district heating is provided mainly by burning wood and waste.

Some parts of industry use gas, but most of heavy industry is not linked to the gas grid, and uses LPG, oil or biomass for heating.

Gas for power generation is not widely used and not needed at all. Sweden gets most of its electricity from hydro, nuclear, wind and biomass CHP, and has a huge surplus for export. In 2013 and 2014, natural gas supplied less than one per cent of electricity in Sweden , compared to seven per cent from rapidly growing wind power.

The minimal 1 TWh of gas power can also be compared with net electricity exports of 10 TWh, and with the target of three TWh alone for Eon’s new, highly controversial Öresundsverket power plant in Malmö

This plant was mostly idle in 2013 and even more so in 2014. So was the other big gas power plant in Gothenburg. If Eon and Gothenburg Energy had listened to the NGOs they would have saved a large amount of money.

The NGO victory over natural gas did not come immediately. Eon tried to extend the gas grid towards Stockholm for several years, but finally had to give up in 2011. A pipeline has to pay its way every 50 kilometres or so by recruiting customers nearby.  Eon wanted to build a pipeline up north to Jönköping at the southern tip of Lake Vättern, 300 kilometres south of Stockholm. When the local utility company, Jönköping Energi, decided to fuel its next CHP plants with wood chips and other biofuels, the potential demand for gas in the area became too small.

The road to Stockholm was closed in a most undramatic way. But it reflects a deep change in the energy system.

Biomass is nothing new. More than half of Sweden is covered by forest, so the timber, pulp and paper produced by the wood industry have always been important for the Swedish economy. Just think Ikea!

But the real expansion in biomass started around 1980, in the aftermath of the oil crises. At that time Sweden got 48 TWh of its primary energy from biomass. By 2012 this had increased to 140 TWh, which is much more than nuclear (61 TWh) and more than 10 times the amount from natural gas (12 TWh). There are some methodological issues here, but the broad pattern is unambiguous.

This development was policy-driven. Sweden was very oil-dependent in the 1970s, and there was a broad political consensus on the need to reduce this dependence. The measures taken included: high taxes on oil, stricter environmental requirements for oil-fired plants, and direct subsidies for biofuel plant investments and R&D. In 1991 a heavy CO2 tax was added, soon followed by a conversion subsidy for homeowners switching from oil to anything else.

Most of the biomass resource comes from wood byproducts, and is used to generate electricity and heat – mainly district heating, or process heat for the paper and pulp industry.

Sweden has a lot of district heating, much more in absolute numbers than the UK and not so far behind Germany, Italy and Poland. The new Stockholm bio-CHP plant, to be commissioned in 2016, is believed to be the biggest such plant in the world.

Besides the bulk use of many forms of biomass for heat and power, Sweden has also pioneered biogas and biodiesel. Biogas development was pioneered by the city of Linköping, which has a population of 150,000 and is situated south of Stockholm. A large plant that used slaughter waste as a substrate was in operation from 1997, with part-financing from the government. Linköping’s buses, most of the buses in the surrounding province, other heavy vehicles, taxis and thousands of cars run on biogas. There are 12 public filling stations. Biogas is also produced in nearby Norrköping as a by-product of ethanol production, from food waste and manure in several towns, and from sewage treatment. It is all produced by anaerobic digestion. The gas is refined to the same grade as natural gas.

This shows that qualitatively you can have gas without fossil fuel.

But is it big enough to matter, to cut transport emissions? Until very recently, the answer would have been “not really”. Swedish transport GHG emissions did drop some 13 per cent from their peak in 2007 to 2013, some of which can be attributed to biogas but more to improved efficiency and ethanol.

But in 2014, GoBiGas in Gothenburg went into operation and will produce 150 GWh gas/year from thermal gasification of cellulose. This is the second generation of biofuels. It uses as feedstock the branches and tops of trees, parts that cannot be used for timber or paper. This offers huge potential. If the technology works well, it could also use other cellulosic waste from agriculture.

A new and much bigger plant with an output of 1000 GWh gas/year is planned, and was awarded 58.8 million euro from the NER300 EU programme, although investment is pending results from the first plant.

The timing is fairly good. Wood residues for heating do not have a very promising future, as buildings get more efficient and winters get warmer. Demand for paper is dropping. So is demand for electricity, and the room for biomass CHP is shrinking even faster, due to rapid wind power growth in

Sweden and surrounding countries. So the forestry industry needs new markets, and biofuel may develop into a great market.

There are other options. Evolution diesel oil, which is made from tall oil, a byproduct of the chemical pulp process, is blended with fossil diesel. This is equivalent to taking 276,000 cars off the road, according to oil refinery company Preem. New products, such as resins for paints and glues, are being developed as by-products of the by-product.

There is a real conflict between gas and biomass, just as the NGOs claimed 25 years ago.   

The development of wood-based energy and products would largely have been stifled by an abundance of natural gas.

There are more than 2,000 buses and several other vehicle types that run on gas, and though some of it is fossil, most is biogas.

Fredrik Lundberg

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