Evan Mills - February 10, 2011

Mills is a staff scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, at the University of California.

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

As a case in point, January 1st, 2011 was the deadline for shutting down all 10 of Sweden's nuclear reactors, a deadline that was quietly missed.

When I arrived in Sweden in the spring of 1988, the country's seemingly colliding policies of phasing out nuclear and preserving their remaining wild rivers, while capping carbon-dioxide emissions (yes, caps on CO2 in 1988!) set the stage for what ultimately became a three-year research project at the University of Lund.

Together with the Swedish State Power Board (Vattenfall), we showed that not only could these lofty goals all be met—in style—but that in doing so the cost of providing energy services would be lower in 2010 with a mix of renewables (particularly in the form of combined heat and power production using biofuel waste from the paper and wood products sector) and high end-use efficiency in buildings and industry than was the case for a business-as-usual scenario.  The findings added a sense of do-ability to previously idealistic goals held by the Parliament. 

The nuclear phase-out decision traces back to a public referendum in 1980, fueled by the recent Three Mile Island disaster.  This was one of only six such referenda in Sweden's history along with things like prohibition and what side of the road to drive on. In light of this, TMI arguably had far more impact on Swedish energy policy and the public psyche than it did on U.S. energy policy. 

The direct hit of radiation that Sweden took from Chernobyl in 1986 added fuel to the fire.  Sweden detected and publicly announced the meltdown before Russia did.  One reactor in the Barsebaeck complex was closed in 1999 and another in 2005, the same year as radioactive water leaked from a Swedish nuclear waste storage site. The ageing plants have become sufficiently flakey that the term "intermittent nuclear" is sometimes used to describe their role in the grid.

Ten reactors remain in service today, but last year Parliament suspended the phase-out and even blessed unsubsidized replacement of existing reactors—no capacity expansion—with unlimited owner/operator liability for accidents.  These billions could have been more productively spent on efficiency and renewables.

I've watched the Swedish case from afar since returning to the States. Knowing that a greener, more secure, and more cost-effective energy path had not been taken, a meltdown in my admiration for the Swedish energy policy of legend thus ensued.

However, just this week a beefy annual review of the Swedish energy situation showed up in my mail, which I read with pleasure (mostly). The pages contain an encouraging existence proof that energy futures can be chosen and a nation's course strongly changed in very impressive timeframes.  Progress since I left in 1991:

  • Hefty carbon-dioxide taxes of US$150/tonne were introduced.
  • Despite 60% economic growth, total primary energy use has fallen and electricity use has remained constant.
  • Coal use for energy purposes has been trimmed by 50%, although Vattenfall has made massive investments in coal-fired electricity outside of Sweden—some using dirty lignite—with resulting emissions that are on a par with in-country emissions.
  • Heating energy fuel choices have been managed aggressively. Oil, once the dominant district heating fuel has been replaced almost completely with biomass.
  • A whopping third of Sweden's energy supply is today renewable, a higher share than any other EU country.

Thanks these efforts, Sweden is proud to find itself with CO2 emissions per unit of GDP and per capita among the very lowest in the industrialized world.  The U.S. is at the other end of the spectrum…


Swedish energy policymakers are again ambitious about the future. A moratorium on expansion of nuclear power remains. Official policy is that at least half of energy supply shall be from renewable sources by 2020. Efforts on energy efficiency shall be redoubled, with the country aiming to reduce its energy intensity by 20% in the coming decade.

Greenhouse-gas emissions are to be reduced by 40% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, with no net emissions by 2050.  A carbon-neutral country – how about that?

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


Longer version here.