Swedish city ditches fossil fuels by drawing energy from waste

Kristianstad, Sweden uses almost no fossil fuels. Instead, it uses waste -- from manure to kitchen scraps to animal byproducts -- for energy.

The southern Swedish town of Kristianstad has almost completely done away with fossil fuels, using instead waste -- from manure to kitchen scraps to animal byproducts -- for energy.

Wonderfully described in a New York Times article on Friday, Kristianstad -- a town of 80,000 residents that specializes in farming and food processing -- has avoided the hype of solar panels, wind turbines and other cleantech solutions by looking inward to take advantage of all the energy it was throwing away.

The key term here is biomass. According to the report, the town makes use of a 10-year-old plant to convert detritus into biogas, a form of methane that's burned to create heat and electricity and fuel for cars.

The approach is less about environmentalism and carbon emissions and more about self-sufficiency. But it's a truly sustainable, in the strictest definition of the word, way to power the future.

Elisabeth Rosenthal reports:

Both natural gas and biogas create emissions when burned, but far less than coal and oil do. And unlike natural gas, which is pumped from deep underground, biogas counts as a renewable energy source: it is made from biological waste that in many cases would otherwise decompose in farm fields or landfills and yield no benefit at all, releasing heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

It's a matter of perspective: look around and find potential fuel virtually everywhere an industry exists.

A few key points from the report:

  • The motive: fossil fuels are expensive in Europe and overuse is taxed in the EU.
  • It took oil price shocks in the 1980s -- the city could "barely afford to heat its schools and hospitals," Rosenthal writes -- to get in gear and begin building an underground heating grid.
  • In the last 10 years, Kristianstad has cut fossil fuel use in half and reduced carbon emissions by 25 percent.
  • It costs Kristianstad $3.2 million each year to heat its municipal buildings. On fossil fuels, it would cost $7 million.
  • About 5,000 biogas systems are online in Germany.
  • 151 biomass digesters are online in the U.S.
  • Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric are exploring the idea of colocating such plants near the nation's agricultural centers.

Since transportation accounts for 60 percent of its fossil fuel use, Kristianstad city planners are exploring the idea of residents using cars that run on local biogas.

While that's highly unlikely to happen in the U.S., the idea of self-sufficiency is not so far-fetched. (It's already starting in the corporate world: General Motors announced Monday that about half of its facilities are now zero-landfill.)

Hundreds of billions of pounds of organic waste is generated in the country every year; landfills across the country produce biogas. Can America make better use of it?

Photo: D'arcy Norman/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com