Stockholm, Sweden — For a lesson in global energy history, look no further than Stockholm’s oldest power plant. Since 1903, Fortum Oyj’s Vaerta harbor site has generated power using coal, oil, natural gas and even considered nuclear. Now it’s phasing out the last coal furnace and replacing it with the world’s largest combined heat and power generator that will burn just wood chips and timber scraps by next year.
“It’s like looking at the growth rings of Swedish energy policy,” Ulf Wikstroem, an environmental manager at Fortum, said by phone Jan. 13 from Stockholm. “We plan to have the whole plant running on biomass by 2030 at the latest.”
Fortum’s $530 million project is part of the region’s push toward green energy. Biomass, which can include everything from waste and residue from wood to leftover food and cow dung, is poised to supplant fossil fuels as early as 2018, according to Markedskraft ASA, an energy adviser in Arendal, Norway.
Denmark’s Dong Energy A/S is switching half of its coal generators to biomass by 2020. Sweden’s Vattenfall AB is also increasing biomass use, while limiting output at fossil-fuel units, the main source of global carbon-dioxide emissions.
While not the cleanest form of energy, burning wood has little impact on the climate because it has already soaked up from the atmosphere during its lifetime as much carbon dioxide as it releases as a fuel.
Sweden, the Nordic region’s biggest economy, surpassed its 2020 European Union target of 49 percent renewable energy in 2012. The share will reach 57 percent by 2030 with current policies, according to the Swedish Energy Agency.
The EU’s target is 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, from 14 percent in 2012. In the U.S., President Barack Obama has ordered the federal government to get 10 percent of its energy from renewables this year. China, the world’s biggest energy user, plans to generate 15 percent of its needs from non-fossil sources by 2020.
Envoys from 190 nations will meet at United Nations- sponsored talks in Paris in December to draw up carbon-dioxide emission limits. The current goal calls for policy makers to keep global warming increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
Across Sweden, facilities burning biomass to generate electricity increased 26 percent since 2009 to 201, according to a report in September by Svebio, a Stockholm-based group lobbying for biomass. Output was 10.4 terawatt-hours in 2013, according to Entso-E, a regional grid lobby group. That compares with 9.2 terawatt-hours of electricity from Oskarshamn-3, the nation’s biggest reactor, last year.
As much as 6 percent of the Nordic region’s power was generated by burning biomass in 2013, compared with 3 percent in Europe, Entso-E data show.
Dong, based in Copenhagen, plans to boost biofuel use at 10 power plants to 50 percent in the next five years, from 18 percent now, said Jens Price Wolf, the director of asset management for the utility’s thermal units.
Vattenfall has sold two of its three Danish coal-fired plants “and is looking to divest the last one,” Chief Executive Officer Magnus Hall told reporters and analysts on Thursday. The company also has plans to convert the 610-megawatt coal- and oil-fired plant to run on biomass, according to its website.
When Finland’s 1,600-megawatt Olkiluoto-3 nuclear reactor starts in about four years, most of the Nordic fossil-fuel generators will be too expensive, according to Olav Botnen, an analyst at Markedskraft. This means power output from burning biomass will surpass coal for the first time, he said.
Amid the smell of wood chips on a rainy December morning, the rounded exterior of Fortum’s new boiler sits under towers of scaffolding. It stands in contrast to the 28-acre (11.5-hectare) site’s older, high-ceilinged brick structures, with tiled walls and ornamental cast-iron railings.
“The new plant has a more ambitious form, with a proper outside and not just a concrete box,” Anders Johnson, an industrial economist and author of Norra Djurgaardsstaden, a history of the area, said in a Jan. 27 interview. It’s a step back to the designs of public buildings a century ago, he said.
The 330-megawatt Austrian-made boiler adds to Vaerta’s production capacity that includes oil and biofuel-fed burners, as well as one of Sweden’s last coal-fired generators, modified in 2010 to run partly on olive pits.
The complex will generate enough heat to warm 30 percent of Stockholm’s 900,000 homes as well as meet as much as 8 percent of the city’s electricity consumption, according to data from Fortum and Statistics Sweden.
The city, which controls 49.5 percent of the site, wants Vaerta’s coal plant shut before the end of the decade and replaced with the new boiler, according to Katarina Luhr, the vice mayor overseeing environmental issues. Burning biomass will help the Nordic area’s biggest metropolis meet its goal to be fossil-fuel free by 2040, she said.
“It’s unacceptable having a coal plant in the city of Stockholm,” Luhr said in a Jan. 23 interview. “It’s important for our brand to show other cities we can do this. We have been able to do it, you can also do it.”
Copyright 2015 Bloomberg
Lead image: Biomass pellets via Shutterstock