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Swedish heat energy system – new tensions and lock-ins after a successful transition

Sweden has successfully begun a transition to a low-carbon energy system, reducing domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 24 percent from 1990 to 2014 and by more than 40 percent since the mid-1970s. The share of fossil fuel energy in heating is below 5 percent having been replaced by both district heating and electricity. However, the heat energy system is still locked into supply-dominated heat production, a new Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) policy brief highlights.

Sweden has successfully begun a transition to a low-carbon energy system, reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent from 1990 to 2014 and by more than 40 percent since the mid-1970s. In terms of energy for heating, the share of fossil fuels is now below 5 percent.

This has been achieved by removing oil and other fossil fuels for heating in both detached homes and blocks of flats over the past 50 years. Fossil fuel energy has been replaced by both district heating and electricity through resistive heating and heat pumps, which provide up to 75 percent of the energy demand for heating in buildings.

Currently, district heating delivers more than 50 percent of the heat in the building stock, compared with about 6 percent across the EU. Another 20 to 25 percent of the heat is generated from electricity, much of it through heat pumps.

Overall, Sweden has the highest share of renewable energy for heating in the EU, and its experience could provide useful insights for low-carbon transitions in other countries. In terms of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, Sweden’s efforts to transition to a low-carbon economy have been largely successful.

However, according to a policy brief by Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI), an international non-profit research organization that works with environment and development issues from local to global policy levels, the heat energy system is still locked into supply-dominated heat production with the overarching objective of self-sustained production. There is little focus on reducing demand for heating as a sustainability practice.

Uddevalla Energi’s waste-to-energy (WtE) combined heat and power (CHP) incorporates a wood pellet plant that provides a heat sink during the summer months enabling the WtE plant to operate fully year round.

The authors also highlight that the practice of incinerating waste to generate heat in district heating plants is increasing, despite overarching ambitions to recycle it instead. There is also resistance from the dominant actors in the district heating domain to more stringent energy efficiency standards for buildings that would align Sweden with its long-term goals and with EU directives.

Furthermore, the authors note that the need to renovate Sweden’s building stock, rising temperatures following climate change, and tightening EU directives on energy efficiency and energy performance of buildings, will lead to less demand for heat energy. The heat system will face challenges of growing importance unless it adapts to these pressures.

The policy brief is a synthesis of an original SEI research paper “A new regime and then what? Cracks and tensions in the socio-technical regime of the Swedish heat energy system” that was published July 2017 in the journal Energy Research & Social Science.

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