Swedes could soon be filling their cars with smuggled alcohol and animal remains. It is all part of a plan by the Swedish government to wean the country off oil within 15 years and thereby become the world's first oil-free country.
Sweden is on the road toward a greener future. Photo: Yvonne Palm / Vägverket
Sweden already gets most of its electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric power. Now it's turning its attention to transport, and petrol and diesel.
There are a number of alternative transport fuels in use today around Sweden, which is ranked the second most environmentally friendly country in the Environmental Performance Index.
That’s the spirit
The high price of alcohol in Swedish liquor stores results in a constant stream of day-trippers traveling to neighboring Germany and Denmark to stock up on cheap beer, wine and spirits. Last year, under the “personal use” rule, Customs seized 55,000 liters of spirits, 294,000 liters of strong beer and 39,000 liters of wine.
Peter Nielsen is head of intelligence at Tullverket (Swedish Customs) in Malmö, south Sweden. “When I became a Customs officer in 1986 it was standard procedure to just pour these drinks down the sink," he says.
Confiscated alcohol is turned into environmentally friendly fuel for Swedish road users. Photo: Tullverket
“But now there is this new environmental awareness. No one gains from pouring it away, not financially or environmentally. So we have gone from washing it down the sink to using an advanced plant for generating biogas and environmentally friendly fertilizers.”
The one million bottles and cans seized annually by Tullverket are trucked to a warehouse where they are dumped into a crushing machine. The beverages are separated from their containers and blended with water to make the largest and probably worst-tasting cocktail imaginable. This is then taken by tanker to a plant in Linköping, about 200 km south of Stockholm, and turned into biofuel to power public buses, taxis, garbage trucks, private cars - even a train.
The biogas train, which has been running between Linköping and Västervik on the southeast coast for six months, has generated international interest and the technology behind it could soon be taken up by India.
The biogas train is one of the first trains of its kind in the world. Photo: Lars Adolfsson / SVT Östnytt
Waste not, want not
Peter Undén is the marketing boss at SvenskBiogas, which produces, distributes and sells biogas for transportation in eastern Sweden. Each year the company takes 50,000 tons of a stomach-churning mixture of slaughterhouse waste, human waste and seized alcohol and turns it into clean-burning biogas.
He says that when the local food-processing industry slaughters cows and other animals, it is left with blood, innards and other small pieces of superfluous meat. “Before, this just went to a landfill and would lay there and rot and create methane seepage,” he says. “So it’s a good thing to use this energy in a positive way.”
This miracle of science, where waste products are turned into a fuel that produces only five per cent of petrol emissions, takes place in an anaerobic digester.
“When these waste materials reach our plant we mix them together, heat them to 70C then put them into the anaerobic digesters,” Undén explains. “The organic materials are broken down for 30 days and during that process biogas is produced. When the gas comes out, we clean it and sell it.”
Undén says the benefits of using biogas for fuel are that it is renewable, carbon dioxide neutral and produced locally, thereby creating jobs and reducing transportation costs.
The cheaper choice
Mattias Goldman of Gröna Bilister (the Swedish Association of Green Motorists) says there are other advantages for saying farewell to fossil fuels. “It’s pure economics. If you run on ethanol you save about SEK 1.50 per 10 kilometers compared with petrol. When you run on biogas you can save up to SEK 5 per 10 kilometers.”
Goldman points out that drivers of “green” cars don’t have to pay the road tolls in Stockholm and park for free in many of Sweden’s larger cities. “Plus company car drivers pay less car tax,” he says. “It is not the Greenpeace activist but the company car driver that is making the market for green cars grow rapidly in Sweden.”
Today almost 40,000 – or one per cent – of the four million cars on Swedish roads run on alternative fuels. Last year sales were up 168 per cent. By the end of the year green cars are expected to account for about 20 per cent of new car sales.
With this level of engagement among the public, determination within the government and a fair dose of ingenuity, Sweden may yet prove that there is life after oil.
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David Wiles is an English journalist living in Skåne, southern Sweden. He is editor of Sweden Today magazine.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
© Photo 1: Yvonne Palm /Vägverket
© Photo 2: Photo: Tullverket
© Photo 3: Lars Adolfsson/SVT Östnytt
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