Swedish Arabia

How Sweden could become a net exporter of biofuels.


Andrew Leonard
April 21, 2006 10:05PM (UTC)

One thousand years ago, Sweden exported Viking berserkers to rage across the coastline of Europe. Twenty years from now, could Sweden be exporting biofuels? That is the question explored in an intriguing new study by two Swedish researchers, published in the March issue of Energy for Sustainable Development. (As a side note, the table of contents for that issue is a biofuel fan's bonanza.) (Thanks to Energy Bulletin for the link to the Watt, a blog devoted to energy issues that looks pretty substantive.

Sweden's ambitious plan to move entirely away from dependence on fossil fuels has been discussed here before. The success the nation has already achieved -- the authors of the study note that in 2003, 17 percent of Sweden's "total primary energy supply" came from bioenergy -- should encourage us to take discussion of future possibilities there quite seriously.

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The interesting part of this paper, which boasts the sexy title "The Prospects for Large-Scale Import of Biomass and Biofuels Into Sweden: A Review of Critical Issues," is that it doesn't just discuss Sweden's desire to wean itself from fossil fuels. The authors focus on whether Sweden can capitalize on its rapidly improving expertise in producing biofuels to become a net exporter of energy resources to the rest of the world. There are a number of significant caveats, but ultimately, the answer is yes. The researchers envisage a future in which the demand for biofuel energy is greater than the supply from potential biofuel-exporting regions, which, creates, in their view, a significant market opportunity for anyone who can get into the export business.

This is called thinking ahead. Obviously, a lot of countries could get into the business of importing biomass feedstocks and exporting biofuels. Sweden, say the researchers, has the expertise and technology to be a significant player, if it makes all the right moves.

"There are hopes that Sweden, by taking early steps, will gain a strong international position in the future bioenergy field and that large-scale biofuel production based on domestic resource -- for domestic consumption and also export -- can generate substantial employment and export revenues. In addition to biofuels, Swedish know-how, technology and equipment in the field of bioenergy are also considered to have export potential."

Sweden's port infrastructure would have to be upgraded if it were to become a significant importer of biomass feedstocks, but much more important, great attention would need to be devoted to ensuring that biomass-exporting regions -- the study targets South America and the nations of the former USSR as likely suspects -- did not wreak havoc on their own natural environments as they moved toward the rapid development of bioenergy plantations. As the conclusion drily states, "Bioenergy promoters will find it difficult to reach out with enough convincing arguments if, for example, expansion of tropical bioenergy plantations becomes identified as a prime driver of deforestation."

The paper is short and likely to be fascinating to biofuel geeks. But if you're looking for something more meaty, you can follow the footnotes to a dissertation published in 2004, by Monique Hoogwijk of the University of Utrecht, titled "On the Global and Regional Potential of Renewable Energy Sources." We've wondered here before whether renewable sources of energy can replace fossil-fuel sources. I can't say I've read all 256 pages of Hoogwijk's thesis, but her answer, as far as electricity production is concerned, seems to be a qualified yes. So plug that in to your renewable-energy bibliography as well.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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