The Energy Spectator

I’ll Take Sweden

Unfortunately, as we saw during his Stockholm stopover, the president lives in the press’s energy bubble.

By 9.6.13

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President Obama swung through Sweden Wednesday on his way to Russia and couldn’t miss the chance to comment on what a wonderful job the Swedes are doing in creating a clean energy world:

Sweden is obviously an extraordinary leader when it comes to tackling climate change and increasing energy efficiency, and developing new technologies. And the goal of achieving a carbon-neutral economy is remarkable, and Sweden is well on its way. We deeply respect and admire that and think we can learn from it.

From there it was on to a tour of the Royal Society of Technology Expo, where he viewed some of Sweden’s pending energy breakthroughs. As reported in the Hill:

First up was Solvatten, a company that makes water filtration devices for families of up to six people. Obama asked whether Solvatten’s product could be easily scaled up to supply people in Africa and India with clean water — the employee said yes, for less than $100.

"Congratulations. It's a great story to tell. We're very proud of your work,” the president said in response, according to pool reports.

Obama then met with a trio of professors who were working on fuel cell technology for vehicles.

The president wrapped up his tour by meeting with the Volvo Group to discuss its plans for hybrid plug-in mass transit systems, such as for city buses. Volvo is planning to launch the “fully electric and emissions free” buses in 2015.

The White House quickly followed up with a fact sheet:

Sweden is a global leader in deploying clean energy solutions.… Between 1990 and today, Sweden cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent while enjoying real economic growth of 59 percent. Sweden has a national vision of becoming an economy with no net emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2050.

Under President Obama, the United States has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, research and development, and renewable fuels. Last year energy-related U.S. emissions fell to their lowest levels since 1994—a remarkable 12 percent below where we stood in 2005. This June, President Obama unveiled his Climate Action Plan, which will drive more aggressive action than ever before and help the United States meet its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 17 percent from 2005 levels in the context of all other major economies making commitments to reduce their emissions as well.…

In the press, the hosannas rang forth about the future in which the two countries will join together to develop new technologies -- “smart grids to ensure efficient transmission of electricity, developing renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, developing sustainable cities, and cooperation to facilitate innovation and commercialization of sustainable energy technologies.”

Hand-in-hand into a glorious future.

Now, would you like to know what is really going on in Sweden? Here are the facts: 

Sweden does indeed have the lowest rate of carbon emissions in Europe, 5.3 metric tons per capita as opposed to 6.1 in France, 8.1 in Austria, 10.5 in Norway and 17.2 in the United States. Why? Because Sweden gets 42 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. In Europe, this is second only to France’s 75 percent. In a county the size of California and with a population smaller than North Carolina, Sweden has 10 operating reactors and two more held in reserve. Illinois, our most intensely nuclear state, has only 11 reactors with a 25 percent larger population.

Sweden’s coastal mountains also give it ample hydroelectric power and this provides another 50 percent of power, making Sweden 90 percent carbon-free. It burns only a smidgen of coal. The country is promising to be “oil free” by 2020 by promoting natural gas vehicles and switching a sizable portion of its car fleet onto this carbon-free grid.

The road to nuclear in Sweden has not been easier than anywhere else. Three Mile Island caused a panic and in 1980 the nation held a non-binding referendum that gave voters options, none of which involved sticking with nuclear. The proposal to phase out the nation’s reactors by 2010 barely won out over a proposal to shut them immediately.

Yet as the years went by, it became obvious the nation was reaping huge benefits from nuclear. Even a fairly serious incident at the Barsebäck reactor in 1992 did not dent public opinion. Parliament eventually voted to close down Barsebäck (over 94 percent opposition from local residents), but the remainder continue to operate. In 2009, the government finally gave up on the phase-out and agreed to build more reactors. Sweden is also pioneering a repository for nuclear waste -- their equivalent of Yucca Mountain.

In reporting the President’s energy remarks, not a single report in the U.S. press even mentioned nuclear energy. The only story for the day came from the Copenhagen Post, which reported that heavy summer rains have given Sweden such an excess of hydro that it is now exporting its excess nuclear to Denmark. As a result, that country -- where you can’t turn around without encountering a windmill -- is also running 15 percent on nuclear.

In its delirium over renewable energy -- “wind, sun and soil,” as the President phrases is -- the press has created a bubble in which no real news about energy can penetrate. Unfortunately, the President also lives in that bubble.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.