Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The huge wind-power push could still cause growing pains.
You can’t fault the Swedish Energy Agency for ambition: Last year, it decided to increase its target for renewable energy, aiming to produce an additional 18.4 terawatt hours per year by 2030. That’s a huge amount—it would be enough to provide all the power needs for the U.K.’s 66 million citizens for just under three days.
It seems, however, that it won’t be met in 2030 after all. Instead, Sweden should reach the target by as early as the end of this year.
Behind this unexpectedly rapid success lies a huge push for a more sustainable energy sector. Sweden already has a cross-party agreement to have all its energy needs met from renewable sources by 2040. To date, renewables’ share of energy consumption in Sweden has risen to as much as 57 percent of the total—in 2015, a year when strong winds and heavy rain made wind and hydroelectric power plants especially productive.
By the end of this year, the country of 10 million should have 3,681 wind turbines producing power. So swift has been the proliferation of Swedish wind farms that the government is facing kickback on their site selection, both for the usual aesthetic reasons but also because they now threaten to encroach on airspace used by the military. Indeed, the expansion push has proved so effective that there are now fears that it might even risk shooting the renewable energy market in the foot.
How has Sweden managed to go so far in an area where other countries continue to struggle, both with will and logistics? It’s certain that high public awareness of environmental issues, a strong economy, and effective governance have all helped. But Sweden’s commitment to renewables is also a response to specifically local conditions, both positive and negative.
For a start, the country’s mountainous, rainy, and sparsely inhabited north made it an obvious place to experiment with that earliest of renewable energy sources, hydroelectric power. With ample suitable rivers crossing an area where dams caused little population displacement, the country has been producing hydroelectric power for over a century.
Sweden still relied on cheap imported oil during most of the 20th century, making the shock of the 1973-4 oil crisis especially sharp. The impact of the crisis on the region isn’t always understood by people whose countries were partly shielded from it by their own oil and gas production. In neighboring and equally stricken Denmark, for example, it led to the wholesale replacement of domestic bathtubs with showers, and tubs are now a rarity in that country’s homes. Faced with spiraling energy prices and a desperate need to make energy savings, Sweden hunted round for locally-produced alternatives to oil.
Following the spirit of the times, it decided nuclear energy was the answer. The Swedish attitude toward nuclear power has been ambivalent. After the 1979 leak at Three Mile Island, Sweden held a national referendum on nuclear energy, with the country voting to phase it out gradually. Since this phase-out did not include plants under construction, nuclear power’s share of the market actually rose after the vote, to as high as 40 percent.
It’s partly a debate about this nuclear reliance that has driven the hunt for more renewables: Three decades after the Chernobyl disaster, Swedish authorities were still picking up radioactive traces in wildlife. The country’s readiness to push for more renewable energy sources is thus not just commitment to a greener world, but a pragmatic reaction to a string of economic and environmental shocks.
These shocks seem to have set Sweden on the path to a renewables boom—but there may still be pitfalls. The example of Denmark shows that gaining a high proportion of your power from renewables can attract energy-hungry businesses looking for a greener location, and that perversely end up increasing the country’s overall carbon footprint. Such has been the attraction of Denmark for communications companies looking for data-center sites that the country will have to rely short-term on fossil fuels to top up its energy needs. Denmark’s reputation as a green energy leader has had the unwanted effect of actually increasing its carbon emissions.
There’s also a specific, decidedly wonkish problem afoot. A huge spurt in the production of renewable energy could end up damaging the system through which it is funded. That’s because new wind and solar plants in Sweden are funded partly through something called energy certificates, a system loosely explained here.
Renewable energy producers get a single certificate for each megawatt hour of power they produce—certificates they mainly sell on to major electricity companies, who have a minimum quota that they must buy by law. These certificates are also bought as a speculative good by investors, and if there is a sudden major spike in production, these investors risk seeing the value of their assets fall, which in turn could sabotage the funding system that has helped to grow the renewables sector in the first place.
If this is to be avoided, Sweden is going to need to handle its further expansion deftly. It might seem a little off that nearing a goal that many countries are striving for could cause these kind of issues. It’s undeniable that, despite the complications, they are issues Sweden is lucky to have.