from The Independent.co.uk
by Claire Soares
It doesn't look like the heart of a green revolution. The smoke stacks stick up jarringly above the line of pine trees and don't make for the most scenic view as you meander around the clear blue waters of the nearby lake. But it is this power plant that has helped the small Swedish city of Växjö (pronounced vek-shur) become arguably the greenest place in Europe. On closer observation, the only thing emerging from the chimneys is the faintest wisp of steam. And inside it smells more like a sauna than a furnace.
That's because it is not oil fuelling the plant, but woodchip and other wood waste from the area's sawmills. And as well as generating electricity, it also supplies 90 per cent of this southern Swedish town with heating and hot water. "We are in the middle of the woodshed and we wanted to take advantage of that," explained Tommy Sandh, who works in the control room. The gases produced as the wood burns are condensed into liquid form, and are purified before they reach the chimney. And instead of dumping this liquid, the power plant pumps it around town. Some gushes piping hot out of the town's taps; the rest is directed through plumbing that runs through individual heaters, warming homes and offices.
The pile of wood chippings in the yard towers above head height and takes almost five minutes to stroll around. According to Mr Sandh, that's enough to keep Växjö warm on the snowiest day in winter, or supply it with hot water for a fortnight in summer, and it's a good way of using the paper industry's waste. As well as the centuries-old Swedish policy of planting a new tree for every one felled, the ashes swept out of the furnace each day find their way back to the forest as fertiliser. It was this biomass plant that netted Växjö the European Union's inaugural award for sustainable development this year, an accolade which some might say makes it the greenest city on the continent.
Lying in the heart of Smaland, Växjö has perhaps absorbed the lesson of living harmoniously with the environment the hard way. Just over a century ago, many of its people were forced to emigrate to the US after withered crops and devastated pasture land precipitated a famine. However, it is not just the citizens' consciences and moral histories to which the town's current-day authorities are appealing. They know how to talk to their wallets too. Oil-generated electricity costs about 16,000 kronor a year (£1,170) per person, while the new power plant's electricity comes in at two thirds of the price. What is striking is how long ago the town woke up to global warming.
Long before Joe Public was talking about off-setting and aiming for a carbon-neutral lifestyle, the seeds of green revolution were being sown in Växjö. More than 10 years ago, when oil prices were hovering around $20 a barrel, Växjö announced its aim of becoming a Fossil Fuel Free City. Later it set a date for that goal - 2050, and then added intermediary steps, such as halving the carbon emission per inhabitant by 2010. Already Växjö is well on course. It has clocked up a 25 per cent reduction in per-capita emissions, and at 3.5 tonnes of carbon per person, it hasthe lowest urban level in Europe. It is certainly below the Swedish average of five tonnes and minuscule compared with the United States, where emissions are more than 20 tonnes per person.
But according to Anders Franzen, the head of planning and development department at the city council, there is no room for complacency: "The battle in the energy sector has been won, yes, but the next battleground is transport." While the cycle paths are busy on summer evenings as residents travel into town for a meal on two wheels, not four, it is still hard to get them to abandon totally their petrol-hungry Volvos. The council owns a communal fleet of green cars that run on ethanol, and is hoping to get residents to follow suit.
Mr Franzen practises what he preaches and drives a Prius. One carrot the council is offering is free parking for low-emission vehicles, and it is also training its gaze on converting the public transport system. But he added that the government in Stockholm must play its part. The other innovation that Växjö is trying is wooden buildings. Ikea meets Barrett Homes, if you will. Not only are they carbon-neutral, they blend harmoniously into the landscape. On the shore of Lake Trömmen, construction is almost finished of an eight-storey apartment block, set to be the tallest wooden structure in Europe.
The site manager reckons it is 5 per cent cheaper to build than concrete or brick structures, and already all but a handful of the apartments, due to be completed next March, have been snapped up. Now that climate change is the latest trendy celebrity cause, delegations are beating a path to Växjö. Mr Sandh reckons he is showing at least 20 groups a week around the biofuel plant, some from Sweden but others from Germany and as far afield as Japan. Mr Franzen confesses being proud at being streets ahead of the rest of the world over the problem of global warming. He recalls the summer of 1968, wiling away the hours at parties on Harvard University's campus, talking about music and girls with Al Gore. "It did make me chuckle when he launched the whole Live Earth thing. We will try to get him to come here. He could learn a lot from Växjö."
What are they doing in Europe?
from Northern Ontario Business.com (June 10th, 2009)
by Luke Raftis
The ‘Greenest city in Europe’ is not some sun-soaked southern village covered in solar panels, nor a windy costal town surrounded by a forest of wind turbines, but rather the city of Växjö, nestled in the forests of Central Sweden. The city gained the bragging rights to such a title in 2007, when it was awarded the Sustainable Energy Europe Award by the European Commission for its work to reduce its CO2 emissions by 32 per cent per capita between 1993 and 2007, greatly exceeding Kyoto requirements. They were able to achieve such impressive reductions by using the most locally available source of energy, biomass for nearly all of their heating needs, and much of their electrical energy needs. In 1979, the region was entirely reliant on imported fossil fuels.
Over the next three decades, a series of central combined-heat and power (CHP) plants were built, and the fuel mix was quickly transitioned to become almost entirely based on renewable biomass from the surrounding region. The city itself has 54,000 inhabitants, over 90 per cent of whom are connected to the central heating grid. In some of the smaller surrounding communities, similar systems were set up. The goal is to reduce overall emissions by 50 per cent compared to 1993 by 2010.
These impressive results and lofty ambitions have made Växjö a biomass energy research hub. The city is now home to the Bioenergy Group in Växjö AB, a research group which facilitates cooperation between biomass research at Växjö University and local industry partners. The city was also selected as the site for the European Centre for Biomass Gassification, which will research and develop manufacturing processes for producing DME (Di-methyl-ether) and other bio-fuels. Växjö is also the test site of Volvo’s heavy duty DME vehicles.
There has been keen international interest in the city’s heating system. Technologies such as biomass boilers developed there have already been implemented in Japan as well as elsewhere in Europe. In 2005, the city became part of a program to become a model city in terms of energy systems. In addition to the current heating systems, construction of highly efficient housing units using local materials has begun. Many of the buildings are essentially heated by passive means, requiring heating only on the coldest days.
The designs are relatively innovative; walls have nearly one meter of insulation, and even the mid-rise apartments (up to 8 stories) are built using structural wood beams. Being one of the first to attempt such a transformation has greatly benefited the city, but it also serves as a tremendous learning experience for others. Ulf Johnsson, technical director for Växjö Energy AB, estimates that by making use of the experience and skills developed, they could reduce the time required to get to their situation (goal) by five to 10 years.
Driving around the countryside outside Växjö you can almost forget one is no longer in Northern Ontario, the landscape of gently rolling forested hills and numerous lakes is the same as what one might see from Highway 11 or 17. The natural resources and demographics are virtually identical. Växjö could be any number of Northern cities; all they did was decide to use their local resources to meet their energy needs in a sustainable way.
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