Oil Independence Sweden Plans Wood-fueled Future

Sweden has set itself the goal of achieving total independence from oil by 2020. The country is already covering many of its energy needs with renewable resources such as bioethanol to fuel its cars and wood to fire its power plants.

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Are forests the fuel of the future?
DDP

Are forests the fuel of the future?

If Swedish entrepreneur Per Carstedt is right, the next big energy revolution will really be a step backward. "The industrial age began with the transition from wood to fossil fuels," he says. "Now we're going in the other direction."

Carstedt reaches into a bucket of wood chips. This is the raw material he wants to convert into modern society's lifeblood -- fuel. But before wood can power a car engine, it needs to be chemically processed. And that is exactly what's happening on the top floors of the Örnsköldsvik plant in northern Sweden. Carstedt steps into a large room crowded with steel pipes and aluminium tanks. On the end of each pipe is a safety seal.

"Government regulations," the fifty-year-old Carstedt says with a smile. The material flowing through the pipes is quite popular on dark Scandinavian nights: alcohol -- or rather ethanol to be specific. "Nobody is allowed to tap it here without permission," he says.

The liquid produced in the pilot project of Sweden's Bioethanol Foundation will eventually reach the tanks of so-called Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) that run on both ethanol and gasoline. Tens of thousands of Swedes are already driving such cars. They're an important part of an ambitious project. The government has decided that Sweden will be the first country in the world to become independent from oil -- by the year 2020.

Breaking the Oil Habit

What got Swedish politicians so worried? The surge in oil prices, which many experts no longer expect will fall -- at least not by enough to make it economical. Oil consumption in China and India alone is pushing the technical capacities for oil production to the limit.

Even US President George W. Bush, a former oil man himself, recently criticized his country's "oil addiction." He also visited Colorado's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and spoke enthusiastically about the research into alternative energy sources being conducted there. Bush was excited: "We are on the brink of a breakthrough -- we want people to drive with fuel that grows in America."

A whole series of biofuels are currently being tested. They have colorful names like "Sundiesel" or "CropPower85." Bioethanol is perhaps not the easiest fuel to produce, but the transition from gasoline to bioethanol is a simple one. Ethanol companies are currently a hot tip among investors. Bill Gates recently acquired stock in a company that soon plans to produce some 750 million liters (198 million gallons) of bioethanol. And intrigued US energy experts are already making their way to Sweden.

It's no accident the country -- which used to be known mainly in America for its pre-fab furniture --  is leading the way into the age of sustainable energy. As early as the oil crisis of the 1970s, the country began to turn its back on fossil fuels. Three decades ago, Sweden relied on petroleum for 77 percent of its energy needs. Today, that figure has shrunk to only 34 percent. Conversely, Sweden's use of renewable energy has increased steadily. No other European country covers as large a proportion of its energy needs -- 24.7 percent -- by such sources.

Sweden's geography puts it at an advantage. There are plenty of forests to provide biomass, and there is no shortage of water for producing electricity either. But it's mainly political decisions that have reduced the country's dependence on fossil fuels. Sweden now has a large number of small power plants. It's a decentralized but effective system that provides most homes with heating and many with electricity. The plants run mainly on wood and waste. In Germany, by comparison, heating comes predominately from gas and oil sources, and electricity is mainly produced by large coal-fired power plants.

Sweden in the lead

After re-thinking its electricity and heating, Sweden has now opted for a new course with regard to car fuel as well. An oil commission has been charged with leading Sweden into a greener future. The commission includes entrepreneurs such as Leif Johannson, CEO of carmaker Volvo. Bioethanol-powered cars have become a new sales focus for companies such as Saab, Ford, and Volvo. Around 450 gas stations are already providing an alternative fuel known as E85. By 2009, E85 will be available at every gas station in the country.

In fact, even drivers of regular cars are using bioethanol. In Sweden, conventional gasoline is really already a hybrid of gasoline and the new fuel. "The transition is in full course, and other countries will follow," predicts Kjell Bergström, a Saab engineer.

Flexible Fuel Vehicles are popular in Sweden.

Flexible Fuel Vehicles are popular in Sweden.

Sitting behind the wheel of his model 9-5 Saab, Bergström puts his foot to the accelerator. The engine makes a quiet, slightly high-pitched sound as it propels the car forward. Corn power gently pushes the car passengers against their leather seats. Some 85 percent of the fuel in the tank is ethanol obtained from fermented wheat. Bioethanol is slightly more flammable than gasoline and has a high octane rating of 104. "That means the horsepower of an ethanol-powered engine is about 180," Bergström calculates. "That's 30 more than an engine fuelled with gasoline."

That puts Saab's marketing department in the happy position of being able to sell the company's ethanol-powered cars as both environmentally friendly and fun to drive. A recent ad showed a tachometer with three green trees to mark the highest engine speeds -- instead of the usual red stripes.

Bergström, the engineer, knows very well there's another reason why bioethanol sells well: it's cheap. A Stockholm driver who uses only biofuel saves about €177 ($216) every year. Thanks to the government's tax policy, gas station customers pay about a third less for bioethanol than they would for normal gasoline. What's more, bioethanol drivers in Stockholm don't pay the tax normally levied on city driving. And a biofuel-powered Saab is only about €400 ($487) more expensive to buy than a regular car.

"In the end, it doesn't really matter why people buy the car," Bergström says. "What matters is that it helps the environment." As far as he's concerned, he simply appreciates bioethanol from the point of view of an engineer: it's more combustible than gasoline.

An accident of history

Rivers and woods are not just nice to look at -- they're energy sources too. Sweden is tapping into them.
DPA

Rivers and woods are not just nice to look at -- they're energy sources too. Sweden is tapping into them.

That cars haven't been running on ethanol for a long time is, in fact, simply a historical accident. In the 1920s, car magnate Henry Ford was in favor of ethanol-powered engines. But the Rockefeller oil dynasty was able to push through the use of gasoline motors.

But the wheel of history may be turning backward. The obstacles are certainly not technological, Bergström explains. He opens the hood of his Saab and points to the many tubes that run from the tank to the engine block. "They've got a special rubber coating," the Saab engineer says. Ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline; the tank and the engine valves need to be protected from the fluid. Saab's technicians also recently had to write new algorithms for the car computer, since the amount of energy contained in one liter of ethanol is lower than that contained in a liter of gasoline. The engine's fuel consumption is higher, but there are fewer emissions.

Compared to other fuels such as hydrogen and natural gas, ethanol has one decisive advantage: it's a liquid, not a gas. Bergström isn't impressed by scenarios that present gases as the fuels of the future. "It would be too complicated fueling the car, and the distribution network would have to be changed substantially."

Today's dual biofuel engines, which run on both gasoline and ethanol, are a transitional model, according to Bergström, who is convinced that engines running purely on ethanol will soon be introduced. "Then ethanol's high octane rating will allow us to make the engine run more efficiently and reduce emissions." What's most important to him is that Sweden has managed to solve the old dilemma of how to begin travelling down the road to sustainable energy. "Car producers used to keep demanding a new fuel from gasoline providers, and the oil corporations would reply: we'll get you a new fuel when you build a car that runs on it."

But will it work?

Whether the Swedish model will work elsewhere depends largely on whether enough bioethanol can be produced. Today the most effective source of ethanol is sugar cane. Brazil produces ethanol from it and  Sweden obtains most of its ethanol from Brazil. But the country also already produces a fourth of its ethanol from Swedish wheat. Neither system is fully satisfactory in terms of energy output and the effects on the environment involved.

"We need a cellulose-based system," Bergström says. Developing such a system is one of the aims of Per Carstedt's pilot project. One day Carstedt's plant will be able to convert many kinds of organic matter into fuel: hay, tree bark, maize, leftovers from wine production.  Around 400 billion liters of ethanol could be produced every year in the United States alone. But for fields and forests to become the primary energy source of the future, it will require a vast re-organization of the planet's agriculture. Both uncultivated land and organic waste would have to be put to use.

In Sweden, giant pine woods are waiting to be put to use as energy. Carstedt plans to extract 70 percent of the energy contained in wood. Around 500 liters of ethanol can be produced from two tons of wood. Lignin, a by-product of the cellulose-processing technique, could be converted into electricity and heat in power plants. "We have to think in terms of circuits and cycles, if we want to get the most out of this technology," Carstedt says.

One benefit is that wood is now cheaper than fossil fuels. Producing electricity from willow wood costs €8 per megawatt hour, whereas producing it from coal costs €9.50.

Eddie Johansson, the director of a power plant owned by the city of Enköping, 60 kilometers to the west of Stockholm, explains the attraction: "We're the first community to cover one hundred percent of our electricity and heating needs by processing wood." The community of 38,000 people has also managed to solve another problem thanks to the power plant: the sludge and carbon dioxide-rich water from the local sewage processing plant serves as fertilizer for Johansson's wood fuel.

"We have to get away from these bombastic solutions like giant coal plants and nuclear reactors," says Johansson. "Clever, locally based concepts are the key to success."

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