Evolving energy systems: The Swedish story


Guest blogger Evan Mills of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories explains why recent Swedish energy policy should give us hope.

Sweden is often held up as a harbinger of the kinds of sensible energy policies needed around the world. In practice, follow-through has been less than promised, although remarkable things continue to be achieved.

As a case in point, January 1st, 2011 was the deadline for shutting down all 10 of Sweden’s nuclear reactors.  They quietly missed the deadline (where was the media?), but their story remains interesting.

Aside from a small amount of oil generation and CHP, the country’s power is derived in about equal proportions from nuclear and hydro. Although Sweden has one of the world’s most electricity-intensive economies, carbon emissions from the power sector are negligible. Concerns about nuclear safety and security, the environmental effects of large-scale hydro projects, and a will to cut CO2 even lower make for a compelling set of energy planning challenges.

The nuclear phase-out decision and ban on new construction traces back to a public referendum in 1980, fueled by the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979.  This was only one of six such referenda in Sweden’s history along with things like prohibition, whether or not to join the EU and what side of the road to drive on. In light of this, TMI arguably had far more impact on Swedish energy policy than it did US energy policy.

The direct hit of radiation that Sweden took from Chernobyl back in 1986, added fuel to the fire.  Sweden detected and publicly announced the event before Russia did.  One reactor in the Barsebaeck complex was closed in 1999 and another in 2005, the same year as radioactive water was leaked from a Swedish nuclear waste storage site.  Ten remain in service, but last year Parliament suspended the phase-out and even blessed unsubsidized replacement of existing reactors (although no capacity expansion), along with unlimited owner/operator liability for the costs of accidents.  The ageing plants have become sufficiently flakey that the term “intermittent nuclear” is sometimes used to describe their role in the grid.

Well, it seems that energy policy is what happens while you’re making other plans “¦ even in Sweden.  Along with these developments, a meltdown in my admiration for legendary Swedish energy policy at the time thus ensued.

I was first entranced by the Swedish view of energy technology and policy in the early 1980s, when asked to do some computer simulation analysis of how super-efficient Swedish homes would perform in US climates.  This was to provide background for an important book called “Coming in from the Cold: Energy-wise Housing in Sweden”, published for the German Marshall Fund and the Swedish Council for Building Research and written by international energy analysis guru Lee Schipper, along with Stephen Meyers and Henry Kelley (now Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the US Department of Energy).  These homes were off the charts (or below the charts, as the case may be) in terms of their extraordinary energy efficiency – even by today’s U.S. standards.

After doing that analysis, I wanted to see Swedish energy up close. Inspired by Lee and Art Rosenfeld, my boss at the time, in 1988 I took a Visiting Scientist position at the University of Lund with Thomas B. Johansson, one of the first wave of wicked-smart retreaded physicists who had already been working on energy issues for well over a decade.

The referendum, along with seemingly colliding policies not to build out Sweden’s remaining wild rivers and not to increase CO2 emissions (yes, caps on CO2 in 1988!) set the stage for what ultimately became my dissertation work, and our study The Challenge of Choices.

In 1989, with study co-authors from the Swedish State Power Board, Thomas and I showed not only that these lofty goals could all be met, but that in doing so the cost of providing energy services in Sweden would be lower in 2010 with a mix of renewables (particularly in the form of cogen using biofuel waste from the paper and wood products sector) and high end-use efficiency than for a business-as-usual supply mix and demand scenario.  The findings added a sense of do-ability to previously idealistic goals held by the Parliament.  New programs in efficiency and renewable were launched in the wake of our report.

Since leaving Sweden I will admit to growing more than a little disillusioned by the reality versus the vision of energy policy there.

However, just this month a beefy annual review of the Swedish energy sector showed up in my mail, which I read with pleasure (mostly). The report contains some things that Sweden can be very proud of and an encouraging existence proof that energy futures can be chosen and a nation’s course strongly changed in very impressive timeframes.  Here are some highlights of changes between the year I left Sweden (1991) and 2010:

  • Significant carbon-dioxide taxes (105 oere/kgCO2, or US$150/tonne!) have been introduced, generating about $4B/year in revenues, or $500/capita.  This is almost as much as is generated by regular energy taxes.
  • Total primary energy use has dropped slightly (rising steadily, in the case of transport). Even electricity demand use has remained constant despite 60% economic growth in this same period. It is not clear whether absolute reductions in national energy demand in recent years will be maintained.
  • In-country coal use for energy purposes has dropped by 50% (and by 70% outside the industrial sector). BUT, the Swedish State Power Board (Vattenfall) has made massive investments in coal-fired electricity outside of Sweden, with resulting emissions that are on a par with in-country emissions. Despite its low carbon footprint at home, Vattenfall seems enamored by this fuel, and sequesters most of its profits there.
  • Heating energy fuel choices in buildings have been managed very aggressively. Oil’s share has dropped from 25% to about less than 10%.   Electric heating’s share of energy in the household sector has been trimmed by 30%. District heating, fueled primarily with biomass has picked up most of the slack.  Between 1980 and 2010 district heating went from essentially 100% oil to essentially 0% oil.
  • Almost a quarter of Sweden’s primary national energy supply is today from biomass. By global standards, biomass has reached a startling scale, with more than half as much energy in Sweden as provided by fossil fuels.  Biomass’ share of fuel-based electricity production went from about 20% to about 80%.  Biomass’ share of district heating went from 20% to 75% while the overall production of district heat was boosted by about 50%.
  • Wind power went from nil to 1500 MW, but still makes a very small contribution to national electricity supply, in stark contrast to the success story of Denmark just across the water.
  • Including hydroelectric power, a whopping third of Sweden’s energy supply is today renewable, a higher share than any other EU country.

Thanks to these efforts, Sweden is proud to find itself with CO2 emissions per unit of GDP and per capita among the lowest for industrialized countries [see top figure].

Swedish energy policymakers remain ambitious about the future:

  • A moratorium on expansion of nuclear power remains (despite the stunning back-pedaling on their phase-out plan).
  • At least 50% of energy supply shall be from renewables by 2020 (including 10% within the transport sector, with vehicles free of fossil fuels by 2030).
  • Overall energy intensity (presumably energy per GDP) shall be reduced by 20% between 2008 and 2020.
  • GHG emissions shall be reduced by 40% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, with no net emissions (nationally) by 2050.  A carbon-neutral country – how about that?
  • Efforts on energy efficiency shall be redoubled, driven in part by efforts at the level of the EU (Wait! Why weren’t they redoubled 20 years ago, when even Sweden knew efficiency should come first in the carbon-abatement loading order??)

Let’s hope they stay the course this time.  I am once again (guardedly) optimistic.

Evan Mills

36 Responses to Evolving energy systems: The Swedish story

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Sweden has shown leadership in many areas, especially moral ones. There are no slums, and billionaires do not control the government. Clearly, their carbon tax did not ruin the Swedish economy. As a 1/4 Swede myself, I’m proud of the country’s accomplishments.

    They need to rethink biomass, however, which is far more carbon intensive than most people realize. Entropy governs the process of ongoing forest degradation and simplification, including sink viability. In fact, the whole Swedish model of logging has been oversold.

    At least they report logging emissions in IPCC country reports, however, which provides some of the data that I have had to rely on here. The US disguises its logging and deforestation emissions by claiming net sequestration, as if the baseline didn’t matter. IPCC unfortunately has been timid here, and has caved in more to the timber industry than to oil and coal. This is because forestry IPCC delegations are dominated by Forestry professors, who have commercial relationships.

  2. davidgswanger says:

    I don’t think any energy source free of carbon emissions should be scorned, including nuclear power plants, as long as safety standards are upheld. Perhaps building more may not make any financial sense (as Joe often says), but I believe they should keep what they have.

  3. Mike Tabony says:

    As one who heats his home solely with wood (biomass) and uses the wood stove to sometimes cook on, I salute the Swedes. May the world soon emulate you.

  4. Andy says:

    Is there a way to compare the what the Swedes are paying for energy vs. say Americans? I’d imagine they are paying a premium for low carbon energy but it may be difficult to price in all the externalities in order to do a direct comparison.

  5. Barry says:

    Andy (#4), I think the question you are asking is what percentage of income do Swedes pay for energy vs Americans. Who cares what per-unit energy costs are if total energy spending is low enough because of efficiency.

    Given that Swedes have a very high living standard, I would guess that energy costs are not a burden on their society and economy.

    Many Americans’ pay a large energy premium because of gross inefficiency of our infrastructure…which demands we buy more energy to do the same tasks.

    High per-unit energy prices combined with efficiency mandates/options will over time allow people to do exactly the same thing using far less energy while not increasing their overall energy spending.

    You can see this played out in California where high electricity pricing coupled with big efficiency rules has led to decades of flat per-capita electricity use…lower overall electricity bills…and yet getting more and more done with their flat use of electricity.

    There is very little long-term linkage between per-unit energy prices and what percentage of income is spent on energy…nor on quality of life or economic health. Many of the strongest economies have very high per unit energy prices compared to USA.

    The hopeful future requires a rapid transition of the billions of pieces of inefficient fossil fuel burning infrastructure over to high-efficiency non-fossil alternatives. Efficiency gains allow society to shift to more expensive renewable energy without the economic drain.

    One simple example is that a “high efficiency” [sic] natural gas heater uses 3 times more energy than an electric heat pump in my area. Clean electricity could cost double what natural gas does and you still save money heating your building with “expensive” clean electricity.

  6. Jakob Wranne says:

    Comment on:
    Evolving energy systems: The Swedish story

    TODAY 28 january 2011, our right wing government decided to sell all CO₂ emission rights that we through these measures mensioned above through the years have saved.

    Quoting our minister in charge: “If we don’t sell, someone else will.”

    This is scandalous.

    LAST YEAR, our right wing government decided to permit the construction of new nuclear power plants. The former law was thereby overruled.

    This is scandalous.

    (ok, my english is not as good as I want it to be. But you get the point. Over here we are sliding down the slippery slope.)

    Please react.

  7. Andrew Henry says:

    An illustrative post for Canadians and Americans in a primarily heating climate. Our high CO2 emissions have a great deal to do with poor building energy efficiency and little to do with our climate. If the Swedes can far outpace us in lowering emissions it leaves us little excuse to say that it isn’t possible.

  8. Bill Woods says:

    “As a case in point, January 1st, 2011 was the deadline for shutting down all 10 of Sweden’s nuclear reactors. They quietly missed the deadline (where was the media?), but their story remains interesting.”

    That deadline was dropped quite a while back. Even before last year’s change in policy, the last reactor wasn’t scheduled to close until 2025.

    “Policy decided by Parliament in 1997 requires sufficient progress to be made in developing renewable energy sources and in improving energy efficiency before further reactor closures take place.”

  9. Mike Roddy says:

    To Barry and Andy: Yes, the Swedes pay more per kwh than we do, somewhere around $.20, as I recall. Last year I did an analysis of EU countries’ power costs. The lowest electricity costs (typically coal powered) corresponded with weak and stagnant economies, as in Bulgaria and the Baltic states. The highest costs, as in Denmark and The Netherlands, tracked with high per capita GDP and economic growth.

    The US can afford to pay more for power, including with a carbon tax. Total outlays per household may not go up, because conservation will be enabled. The notion that high electricity costs translate to economic hardship is not supported by the data.

  10. Teemu says:

    Pretty funny how much better do nuclear France and 45% hydro/45% nuclear Sweden do compared to so-praised Germany and Denmark on that list.

  11. virveli says:

    The Swedes always outdo their neighbours in all aspects of life, but here’s the on-line state & consumption/production breakdown of our Finnish electrical power system anyway:

    For the brave in the audience: a working nuclear waste disposal scheme:

  12. JayZ says:

    The referendum is an interesting point. There were only three options on the referendum and all of them would have ended the Swedish nuclear industry … why no option to continue it? Especially considering that a large plurality of Swedes approve not only of nuclear power but efforts to expand it.

  13. Wonhyo says:

    The EPA has drastically reduced its assessment of the benefits of natural gas. While natural gas is still cleaner than coal (so far), there are more climate changing methane emissions than was previously accounted for.

  14. Roger B. says:

    Wonhyo (#12),

    Once all the natural gas that escapes collection from the fractured shale associated with hydraulic fracking is taken into account, I wouldn’t be surprised if natural gas is worst than burning coal in terms of heat trapping capacity.

    As conventional gas resources in the U.S. decline, I expect that the natural gas industry will rely more heavily on fracking unless there is a big public uproar over it.

    Roger Blanchard
    In Beautiful Sault Ste. Marie, MI

  15. Leif says:

    “Kids open 100 year Old Time Capsule”… MSN

    What would we write today?

    What would those kids LIKE to read?

    What will they be reading?

    Will they be “reading”?

    We are the history that makes tomorrow!

  16. paulm says:

    Ben & Jerry’s Factory in the Netherlands to be Powered by Ice Cream!

    Read more: Renewable Energy | Inhabitat – Green Design Will Save the World

  17. paulm says:

    We have this up here in canada….
    The Queensland Government is shutting down a trial underground coal gasification (UCG) plant, citing unacceptable environmental risks.

  18. toby says:

    My son-in-law works in Sweden, and I hope my daughter and garndson join him there.

  19. Joan Savage says:

    I’m dismayed by the setbacks Jakob Wranne (#6) reported.
    Like others I’d tended to put Sweden on a pedestal.

    One other feature of Swedish life that may or may not be still true is/was an accounting practice that allowed six or seven years to see return on investment (ROI).

    That may seem off topic, but it’s central to why Swedish industries went ahead and put in efficient improvements.

    US industries balk at investment in things like smokestack scrubbers that take a while to pay off, or have a social benefit without a direct return on investment. The US accounting practice of wanting to see a quicker return on investment has left US industries in the dust compared to Swedish industries in similar market sectors, such as wood and paper processing, which now have very up-to-date competitive technologies.

    Allowing a longer time frame for ROI is much more straightforward than messing around with carbon credits.

  20. david glover says:

    paulm @ #19

    there is no plant to shut down; the company is in the process of gaining approval to start construction

    tests have shown there is no pollution in the groundwater

    there are several competing coal seam gas companies in the region

    Underground Coal Gasification is more efficient in some circumstances then CSG

  21. david glover says:

    barry @ #5

    Dr. Albert Bartlett’s ” Laws of Sustainability”

    12th Law; When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savingsare easily and completely wiped out by the added resources that are consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population”

    our fundamental problem is a human population @ 6.8 billion and increasing @60 million annually

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Jakob Wranne #6 states the facts. Sweden has been moving Right since the murder of Olaf Palme in 1986. The Wikileaks have revealed Swedish secret collaboration with NATO and the rendition torture and terror apparatus. The days of admiring Sweden as socially progressive are long past. From my experience I find that the more Rightwing a regime the more likely it is to be denialist and the more likely to sabotage international climate change action.

  23. virveli says:

    If the Swedes ever close any of their nuclear units, through the recently expanded undersea cables they’ll be able to import their missing electricity from the new nuclear installations being built/planned in Finland.

  24. virveli says:

    Trading prices on the Nordic common electrical energy market on-line:

  25. Anne van der Bom says:


    Pretty funny how much better do nuclear France and 45% hydro/45% nuclear Sweden do compared to so-praised Germany and Denmark on that list.

    Why is that funny? If anything, nuclear has never been touted as being unable to reduce CO2 emissions. The general resistance against nuclear stems mainly from these two arguments:

    1) Nuclear replaces one problem (CO2) with a few others (long-lived radioactive waste, proliferation of nuclear technology, dependence on a limited commodity).
    2) New nuclear does not compare favourably with renewables in an economic sense. i.e. it is more expensive.

  26. virveli says:

    “1) Nuclear replaces one problem (CO2) with a few others (long-lived radioactive waste, proliferation of nuclear technology, dependence on a limited commodity).”

    We must be doing something wrong in Finland. The units work with a 95% uptime (better than anywhere else), the long-time waste management has been funded for in electricity price from the beginning and is being practically implemented; and I see no mad dictator in charge.

    “2) New nuclear does not compare favourably with renewables in an economic sense. i.e. it is more expensive.”

    Again, some folks must have made a huge blunder in their economic calculations as we have a massive new nuclear project hopefully finishing soon, with more in the pipeline. All this with the Greens in the government, mind you!

    Regarding “general resistance”, polls claim that 48% of Finnish population (15+ years) are for nuclear power while 17% are against. Even among Green voters, there was a 21% support.

  27. jyyh says:

    yes, some Greens in Finland are accepting those for the heavy industry, and frankly because they were not such a major player in internal politics they couldn’t have prevented those. But anyway their general politics have moved from general environmentalism to pro-immigration and more support for poor families. Enough of internal affairs.

  28. Anne van der Bom says:


    1) Putting the radioactive waste under ground is not going to make it go away. It must be garded and monitored for many centuries. How you can say about Finland “there is no mad dicator” as somehow ‘proving’ that proliferation is not an issue is beyond me. Look at another country, Iran, and what happens there under the guise of nuclear energy. Why did Israel bomb that Iraqi nuclear reactor again? Proliferation IS an issue.

    2) hopefully finishing soon. You nailed it. Nuclear proponents can only hope when it will start up, it is all in the hands of fate. Is that what’s supposed to be a mature, proven technology? And the massive cost overruns prove that “some folks must have made a huge blunder in their economic calculations”.

    The fact that 48% of the Finnish population is for nuclear proves exactly nothing. If 48% of Americans believe that global warming is a hoax, does that make it so? Reality is what it is, no popularity poll can change that.

  29. Kaj Luukko says:

    Using Olkiluoto 3 as a proof against nuclear technology is just cherry-picking. It’s FOAK. Look at NPP’s in China, Japan or South-Korea. In In france they build 29 NPP’s in ten years. No renewable energy solutions have come even close!

    Nuclear power has been used to power up submarines and the biggest aircraft carriers for more than 50 years. So yes, it’s very “mature and proven technology”.

    Nuclear power can do a lot to reduce our CO2-emissions. Rejecting it had been a big mistace. It should be clear now for all of us, there is plenty of history to proof that, as in Sweden.

  30. virveli says:

    “1) Putting the radioactive waste under ground is not going to make it go away. It must be garded and monitored for many centuries.”

    Nope. In the Onkalo concept, once the cave is sealed after the disposal phase (possibly in the 2100s), no person will be entering the facility, ever.

    Digging into the 400 meters of granite will require extraordinary determination, but perhaps Anne’s future mad Finnish dictator might be able to do just that, who knows. As things now stand, I would think stealing the uranium of the launch-ready nuclear missiles would actually be easier.

    ‘And the massive cost overruns prove that “some folks must have made a huge blunder in their economic calculations”.’

    Yep, Areva the main contractor has made horrific project management blunders. However,the facility being a turn-key project, the cost will fall on Areva shareholders. The bulk of the building problems have been related to the quite ordinary concrete & steel structures, where the Finnish authorities demand 100% quality and documentation. The latest news is that the facility will be completed in the summer of 2012.

    “The fact that 48% of the Finnish population is for nuclear proves exactly nothing”

    It proves to me that instead of speaking broadly of “general resistance”, you should be speaking of “German resistance” which are two entirely different concepts!

  31. Prokaryotes says:

    “Significant carbon-dioxide taxes (105 oere/kgCO2, or US$150/tonne!) have been introduced, generating about $4B/year in revenues, or $500/capita. This is almost as much as is generated by regular energy taxes.”

    Can we have a dedicated post about the swedish carbon tax success story? Today sweden is ranked top 3 most competitive economies worldwide.

  32. Jakob Wranne says:

    Thank you for reactions!

    Yes, we’ve managed to do a lot, that was quite easy.
    And now, the gains of that effort is being sold.

    So, being proud of work done, we need your reactions to reach our government, and specifically the minister in charge. Do contact him :

    The page for Andreas Carlgren, Minister of Environment :

    Thank you
    Jakob Wranne

  33. Jakob Wranne says:


    That fact you point out in #34 is not widely known here. In Sweden.
    It should be. I will try to spread the word.

    It resembles Jim Hansens proposed “Tax and Dividend”. But without the dividend part. Which is wonderfully pedagogical.