Today’s Solutions: May 22, 2022

Prominent cancer scientist Karl-Henrik Robert calls Ola Altera a silent hero of the energy sector.

Andrew Tolve | Jan/Feb 2009 issue
The transformation caught everyone by surprise, even the people who pulled it off. In 1981, 90 percent of Sweden’s power plants burned fossil fuel, while just 10 percent used alternative energy sources. By 2001, that ratio had been reversed. Ninety percent of power plants derived energy from alternative sources, while 10 percent persisted with fossil fuelÃ??Ã?¢??a change that amounted to a 20 percent decrease in overall carbon emissions. The Swedes had done something about climate change years before most people even knew there was a problem.
How did they do it? As with any broad social change, it was accomplished less by a single person than a singular policy. In 1991, Sweden passed a carbon tax that made burning oil, coal and other fossil fuels more costly than ethanol, peat and waste. As planned, a precipitous drop in fossil fuel use followed. In addition to the tax, however, Sweden called on engineers, politicians and environmentalists to work together to transform the way the country used energy. “There are many people who had to sacrifice in order to accomplish this environmental success,”Ã??Ã? says Ola Altera, Sweden’s vice-minister for enterprise, energy and communication. “Thankfully, these people care less about the credit they deserve than the policies and innovations they have helped to create.”
Altera is certainly one of the influential people in the creation of Sweden’s renewable energy policy. Over the past two decades, AlterÃ???Ã??Ã?Â¥ has made headway on almost every environmental front, often working as a facilitator to help the parties find common points of interest. Altera has been a political advisor at the prime minister’s office, a director at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the secretary-general of the Center Party (akin to the Green Party in the U.S.) and the managing director of the Swedish District Heating Association.
Not bad for a guy who’s 43.
“It has been a gift to be involved in so many different capacities,”Ã??Ã? says Altera, whose English has a distinctly Scandinavian lilt.
“The technology is not rocket science. In fact, when I came into the business, a lot of the engineering work was done. The challenge was letting people in all areas of life know it was there and that it was good for the market.”Ã??Ã?
The technology behind Sweden’s success isn’t hydrogen fuel cells or solar panels. It’s not even very high tech. It’s the humble district heating plant. The idea behind district heating is that a typical power station wastes about 50 percent of its potential energy turning fuel into electricity. The heat escapes into the atmosphere. District heating plants, commonly known as cogeneration plants, capture the wasted energy and use it to heat water. Insulated pipes transport that water around the district, heating homes and businesses with energy that would have been lost. Since the 1970s, Sweden has had such plants in nearly every community of 10,000 people or more.
It’s an environmentally friendly concept in theory. The problem is, most of these cogeneration plants burned fossil fuels to create electricity and heat. And that means the benefits of saving energy were undone by the damage of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Thus the challenge in the 1980s and it was to find alternatives to fossil fuel. One obvious substitute was biomass. Sweden has a large forest industry that leaves mountains of bark chips as a waste product. Altera worked on behalf of the Swedish EPA and the Center Party to create incentives for power plants to use biomass. Industrial waste heat provided another opportunity. When Altera was the managing director of the Swedish District Heating Association, his team performed a study on how much heat was going to waste. The study concluded that industrial waste heatÃ??Ã?¢??the amount frittered away by the country’s industrial sector could meet the needs of Sweden’s domestic and commercial consumers in full.
So Altera worked to create a larger, more flexible network so heat didnÃ??Ã?¢??t go unused. Often that meant channeling it as far as 30 miles (50 kilometers) from plants to cities and towns. He also consolidated the network of district heating companies so businesses could share research standards and cutting-edge technologies. By 2001, nearly all cogeneration plants were burning biomass and solid waste. District heating controlled 48 percent of Sweden’s non-regulated heating market. Largely as a result, Sweden became the go-to nation for alternative energy ideas.
Altera is now focusing on the policies and technologies that will keep Sweden at the vanguard of environmental change. Getting Sweden fossil fuel free by 2020 is a priority, as are the means to enable that change. One such technology uses deep seawater, something Sweden has in abundance, to provide air-conditioning to homes and businesses. The water is pumped through buildings; because it’s colder than the ambient room temperature, it draws heat from the room into the pipes. Another burgeoning technology is called black liquor gasification, which converts waste biomass into biofuel that can power automobiles.
Altera grew up in Pitea, a town in the northern reaches of Sweden “where winters are very cold and a midnight sun shines in the summer.”Ã??Ã? His father worked at the local paper mill, which provided the town with many of its jobs and all of its heat. The mill doubled as a cogeneration plant. Today, thanks to the technologies Altera is working to promote, that same mill is one of the test sites for black liquor gasification. Black liquor is the residue left when wood chips are boiled to make pulp for paper. If that liquor can be gasified into a biofuel rather than thrown away, it’s a double victory less waste and an alternative energy that can power large commercial trucks, some of the biggest gas guzzlers on the market.
Altera is focused on developing countries like China and Brazil, where leaders are trying to implement green measures. Altera traveled to China in 2007 and spoke with politicians and engineers about the benefits of district heating and biofuel. He�?�¢??s in regular contact with U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Michael Wood to establish research projects and get U.S. venture capital into promising Swedish enterprises, like black liquor gasification.
“Sweden is a world leader when it comes to green causes, particularly district heating,”Ã? says Robert Thornton, president of the International District Energy Association, a group of mostly U.S.-based district heating companies in Westborough, Massachusetts. Although not many Americans are up to speed on district heating, the concept was invented in New York in the 1800’s by Birdsill Holly, a contemporary of Thomas Edison’s and a prolific inventor in his own right, and provides heat for some of the country’s iconic buildings, such as the Empire State Building and the New York Stock Exchange, and for most university campuses. Still, district heating is far from the primary source of heat in the U.S., and American cogeneration plants use more fossil fuels than in Sweden. “Sweden has managed to integrate resource planning, tax policy, energy conservation and municipal investment, and they’ve done it with amazing flexibility,”Thornton says. “We all can learn from that.”
“Of course, we tell them in Sweden these aren’t alternative energies anymore; they have become our basic way of life.”

â??Ola Altera is a silent hero. He has been instrumental in transforming the Swedish heating sector into renewables. The task inherently requires someone with a bold vision, a systems perspective, a skill to build bridges across disciplines and sectors and a position in society to bring some weight to the table. Being a trained psychiatrist and engineer, experienced parliamentary politician and creative CEO provided Ola Altera with the experience and platform he neededâ?
 â?? Karl-Henrik Robert, cancer scientist and founder of the sustainability group The Natural Step
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