As a world leader in renewable energy and a major exporter of low-carbon electricity, Sweden is among the green elite. Yet a cold snap provoked a political storm this winter when, in order to keep the lights on, the authorities started up a 52-year-old oil-fired power plant. A furious debate centered on the wisdom of decommissioning nuclear plants, and even the use of vacuum cleaners, exposing a divide over plans to rely more on wind power for everything from transport to factories. The fracas offers pointers to the many countries trailing Sweden on the path to a greener future.
1. Why did Sweden resort to oil?
Karlshamnsverket, the aging power station in the country’s southeast, predates Sweden’s first nuclear reactors in the early 1970s and had been kept on stand-by as a last resort. As temperatures plunged in the first week of February, the plant owned by German utility Uniper SE, was fired up, albeit for little more than five hours. The fact that it started at all was seen by critics as exposing the fragility of the nation’s energy system following the closure of four nuclear reactors in the past six years.
2. Is Sweden short of power?
Most of the time, no. The country produces so much in fact that it was Europe’s third-biggest net exporter in the second half of 2020. (Norway and France lead the way.) But problems can arise during peak demand because of bottlenecks in the grid. These make it hard to move enough power from the sparsely populated north, rich in wind and hydro power, to where most Swedes live in the south. The shortfall necessitates imports of dirtier electricity from Poland, Germany, Denmark and Lithuania.
3. Why was there such a strong political reaction?
Energy prices in the south reached the highest in nine years in February -- just weeks after the decommissioning of Vattenfall AB’s Ringhals-1 reactor. Grid manager Svenska Kraftnat AB stirred emotions by publicly declaring it might be better not to use vacuum cleaners during peak hours. A showdown between the right and the green parties ensued, with Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch Thor posing with a vacuum cleaner defending the right to use it whenever she wants.
4. What are the lessons for other countries?
Having a healthy power surplus nationally is not so great if you can’t supply major population and industrial centers. It’s tempting to replace old and polluting, but steady, power plants near cities with wind turbines in less populated areas or offshore, but that will add a whole new challenge for grids. Most people don’t want pylons, turbines or plants in their backyard; finding appropriate sites is an increasing struggle for utilities. The likes of Germany, which has six reactors closing in the next two years, should pay heed.
5. What will Sweden do?
The Liberal Party called for Vattenfall to restart Ringhals-1, but that’s unlikely. There is, however, general agreement to allow the remaining fleet of six reactors to operate for at least 20 years more. The government will attempt to speed up construction of several much-delayed links between north and south, while also hoping that subsidies for offshore wind production will boost capacity down south. A potential flashpoint could be Uniper’s plan to build small-scale reactors based on new technology. Grid managers are also trying to curb peak demand by introducing markets where commercial users, including shopping malls, get an incentive to sell some power back to the grid when it is needed the most.