Sweden to Go Oil-Free

| Wed Feb. 8, 2006 4:37 PM EST

This is genuinely exciting news (there's so little these days…). It looks like Sweden is preparing a plan to become an "oil-free" economy by 2020:

The attempt by the country of 9 million people to become the world's first practically oil-free economy is being planned by a committee of industrialists, academics, farmers, car makers, civil servants and others, who will report to parliament in several months.

The intention, the Swedish government said yesterday, is to replace all fossil fuels with renewables before climate change destroys economies and growing oil scarcity leads to huge new price rises.Sweden has a decent head start—about 26 percent of its energy already comes from renewable resources (the EU average is 6 percent)—and plans to meet its goal by using biofuels, along with wave and wind power, to generate the needed electricity, rather than relying on new nuclear plants, which already supply half of the country's electricity.

The Volvos, meanwhile, will all run on hydrogen. Or at least that's the plan, though granted, lots of smart people think hydrogen-run cars are easier said than done. Joseph Romm, a former Energy Department official under Clinton and the author of The Hype of Hydrogen, has leveled a number of criticisms along this front—for one, a hydrogen-powered economy can end up using more total energy because all of that hydrogen needs to be transported around to filling stations, and it's harder to ship than gasoline. And a relatively recent study by Argonne National Laboratory estimated that installing the vast infrastructure to equip 40 percent of American vehicles to run on hydrogen would cost $500 billion or more. Obviously Sweden's not as big as the United States, but that's a lot of money, and it will be interesting to see whether the Swedes can pull this all off.

Now the obvious question: Why can't the United States do something like this? There are major differences between us and Sweden, sure: the latter is much smaller, uses less oil, has an abundance of rivers, more nuclear power plants, and less sprawl. That all makes things much easier. And, according to Prime Minister Goran Persson, Sweden's farms and forests are more conducive to generating biofuel than America's. But as I've pointed out before, it's physically impossible to power the whole world—or even more than a small portion—with biofuel, and the United States would have to find its own mix of renewable resources no matter what (most likely involving a heavy dose of solar). So Sweden's not, in a strict sense, a "model" here.

Still, this is what a grown-up approach to energy policy looks like. Nothing mind-blowing. Nothing impossible. All you need is a government willing to act. The contrast between the Swedes and an administration that backtracks from even modest statements on ending our oil addiction—and then lays off 32 workers at the National Renewable Energy Lab because of a $28 million budget shortfall there—pretty much speaks for itself. Lucky us.

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