Here in the UK, prices for natural gas are soaring, we grow more and more reliant on fossil fuel imports, and speculation swirls about plans for nuclear power. But while we shiver in our drafty, poorly-insulated homes with national energy plans mired in the past, Sweden has declared its commitment to a bold future: to become fossil-fuel free in fifteen years.
This ambitious goal will be met by a mix of tax incentives, government investment, and private sector participation. The programme is driven not only by a desire for energy independence and environmental concerns, but also by economic strategy. By reducing dependence on fossil fuels now, Sweden aims to reduce the shock of rising prices expected in the next few years, and to be prepared early for resulting global opportunities. “Breaking dependence on oil brings many opportunities for strengthened competitiveness, technological development and progress,” says Mona Sahlin, Sweden’s Minister of Sustainable Development.

The Swedish government will provide a range of tax incentives to encourage switching to renewable energy, such as tax breaks for converting homes from oil heating to renewable energy. Conversely, fossil fuel use will be discouraged by introducing a carbon tax, and alternative fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol will be exempt.

The government will also continue investing in district heating, a system where buildings in urban areas are heated by a large network of pipes from a central boiler. This is more efficient and cleaner than individual boilers in each building and makes it possible to take advantage of waste heat from industry as well as a wide range of alternative fuels. Already 44% of Sweden’s domestic heating is provided by this method.

Wind power is being encouraged and expanded, and wave power is seen as having strong potential as well. The country is already close to fully exploiting its hydro power capacity. Biofuels are likely to take the place of oil in cars – ethanol is already popular and major petrol stations are already required to offer at least one alternative to conventional petrol at their pumps. (Admittedly, an increase in biofuel will have consequences for Sweden’s forests, which are expected to be the main source of this energy, but sustainable forestry practices may limit the ecological damage of increased forestry.) The government will invest in research into other alternative energy sources. Indeed, the only option the Swedes are not considering is to build more nuclear power stations.

Swedish officials admit that their goal is ambitious and that meeting it will be a formidable challenge, but argue that a clear vision and an ambitious goal is better than none. Even if the country doesn’t manage to become entirely oil-free, it will at least no longer be dependent on fossil fuels. Looking forward to 2020, Sahlin says, “By then no home will need oil for heating. By then no motorist will be obliged to use petrol as the sole option available. By then there will always be better alternatives to oil.” If only energy policy here in the UK was driven by similar vision!