The Swedes are among the pioneers in setting up pilot projects to capture CO 2 emissions from factories. This is new and energy-intensive technology is controversial. But Sweden wants to help create a market for negative emissions.
The imposing copper-colored Exergi thermal power plant building stands in the heart of Stockholm, on the banks of a body of water in the middle of a busy neighborhood, next to a school and a nursing home. The old coal-fired power plant, which provided electricity and district heating for the entire center of the capital, was replaced in 2016 with a plant that burns only biomass - wood waste. This is enough to produce 135 MW of electricity and 330 MW of district heating.
"By closing the coal-fired power plant, we have reduced C02 emissions by 400,000 tons per year," explains Fabian Levhin, Director of Research and Development at Exergi. The turbine produces enough electricity to power 40,000 Tesla cars per day.
Carbon from biomass
Today, the company faces a new challenge - capturing CO2 emissions and returning heat at the same time. This is a lucrative project because the greenhouse gases produced by biomass (and therefore "green" compared to fossil fuels), once captured and buried, can be considered negative emissions. This could foster a new market that, by selling negative emissions to still-polluting businesses, would enable a move towards carbon neutrality.
This is a huge challenge for a new, expensive and already controversial technology because it is energy intensive and has a weak regulatory framework. Some environmental organizations see it as a bait-and-switch, while the priority, they argue, should be immediate and large-scale reductions in CO2 emissions.
The Exergi site has a pilot project (Bio-Energy Carbon Capture and Storage or BECCS), which is attracting attention across Europe from 2019. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the King of Sweden came to observe the initiative at close range. One hundred and eighty million euros have been allocated by the European Union's innovation fund to move to the next phase, the construction of the CO2 capture plant, to be completed in 2027.
The "carbon vacuum cleaner"
"We want to build a 'carbon vacuum cleaner', just like a vacuum cleaner," explains Fabian Levhin. CO2 is captured in heat and power plants and treated with potassium carbonate to compress it to 7 bar. It is then turned into a liquid that is transported by boat from a bridge adjacent to the plant site and buried in porous granite rock at a depth of 3,000 meters. Norway, Denmark and Iceland are the first countries to offer such burials.
"If we develop this type of plant and build 600 of them around the world by 2050, we could sell the equivalent of 520 million tons of negative emissions," the R&D director continues. This is a useful way to offset some of the C02 emissions still produced by fossil fuels, and will lead to a 'voluntary carbon market' where negative emissions can be bought."
Sweden is investing SEK 36 billion to create a stockpile of negative emissions, which will then be auctioned. The targets are ambitious, involving the creation of a new business model.
"By 2030, we should no longer see smoke from factory chimneys in Sweden, because CO2 capture should make money. Some of the green emissions will be exported to Norway, producing negative emissions. "Others will be used to combine with hydrogen to produce e-fuels such as methanol," says Svante Axelsson, national coordinator of the Swedish government's Fossil Free Sweden program.
"We want to return to 1985 levels of CO2 emissions. If we only aim for net zero, we will not solve the problem. We must use these negative emissions to create a negative, not neutral, effect on the planet," says Svante Axelsson.
Swedish industry has been at the forefront of the environmental transition over the past twenty years, stimulated by the introduction of a carbon tax, which has proven to be a successful strategy.
An illustration of "pragmatic and socially responsible capitalism," notes Julien Gennetier, vice president of Alfa Laval's energy division. This Swedish manufacturer, specializing in heat exchangers, fluid separation and transfer, has a strong presence in the energy, agri-food and transportation sectors. "Improving energy efficiency is a crucial step in the energy transition," says Julien Gennetier.
The withdrawal of Russian gas supplies to Europe after the invasion of Ukraine has only reinforced this trend. The most important regulations for the environmental transition - the IRA and the European Green Pact - are also beginning to have an impact and are helping to accelerate this movement.
In conclusion, Sweden is an example of how countries can take ambitious action on climate change. Investing in technologies to capture CO2 and create a negative emissions market is an important step in this direction. However, for these technologies to be successful, a number of challenges related to cost, energy efficiency and environmental safety need to be addressed.