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Alcohol, Feces, Carcasses Fuel "Green" Vehicles in Sweden

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
June 25, 2007
 
In a quest to wean itself off oil, Sweden is turning to an unusual alternative fuel: smuggled alcohol.

Last year, the Swedish government confiscated almost 200,000 gallons (more than 700,000 liters) of alcohol that was illegally brought into the country.

It used to be standard procedure for customs officials to pour the stuff down the drain.

Now the beer, wine, and spirits are instead converted into biofuel—which helps power thousands of cars, buses, taxis, garbage trucks, and even a train.

"This alcohol, which used to go to waste, is now turned into something that's positive for the environment," said Ingrid Jarlebrink of Tullverket, the Swedish Customs agency based in Malmö, Sweden.

Indeed, recycling alcohol is just one of a number of alternative transport fuels in use in Sweden.

(See related: " Here's the Scoop: San Francisco to Turn Dog Poop Into Biofuel" [March 21, 2006].)

More than one-quarter of all the energy consumed in Sweden in 2004 came from renewable sources—more than four times as much as the European Union average of 6 percent. In the capital, Stockholm, one-quarter of city buses run on ethanol or biogas.

In 2006 the Swedish government pledged to become the world's first oil-free country by 2020.

Win-Win Business

Sweden has among the highest prices of alcohol in Europe, and many Swedes travel to neighboring Germany and Denmark to stock up on cheap beer, wine, and spirits.

But traders bringing alcohol into Sweden who exceed the maximum amount allowed can have their goods confiscated.

The amount of alcohol seized by Swedish customs officials has increased in recent years, in part because of greater Internet commerce.

Confiscated beverages are separated from their containers, blended with water, and taken by tanker to a plant run by the company Swedish Biogas in Linköping, 120 miles (200 kilometers) south of Stockholm.

(See a map of the country.)

There, the seized alcohol—along with other fuel sources, such as animal remains from slaughterhouses and human waste—is heated and put into anaerobic digesters. The organic materials are broken down, producing the biogas.

Almost 250 million cubic feet (7 million cubic meters) of clean-burning biogas is produced a year.

In Linköaping, a city of 140,000, biogas makes up 5 to 6 percent of transportation fuel use, and all of its public buses run on the alternative fuel.

For every liter of gasoline that is burned, 2.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide is produced, said Carl Lillehöök, managing director of Swedish Biogas.

"By replacing 5 million liters (1.3 million gallons) of gasoline with 5 million cubic meters (176 million cubic feet) of biogas, we can save 12,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in Linköaping alone," he said.

Biofuel emissions are minimal, Lillehöök added: "If you put your finger on the inside of the tail pipe of a biofuel car, [it doesn't] get dirty."

In the process of making biofuels, the company also produces environmentally friendly fertilizers that are sold to farmers.

"From an environmental standpoint, this is a win-win business," Lillehöök said.

The company also operates the world's first biogas train, which has been running for the past year-and-a-half along the southeast coast of Sweden.

Tax Incentives

While biogas is cheaper to produce than gasoline, the challenge is distributing the fuel, Lillehöök said.

(See related: "Biofuels Could Do More Harm Than Good, UN Report Warns" [May 9, 2007].)

Sweden has close to a hundred biofuel filling stations, but few natural gas pipelines through which biogas can be transported. Instead, the gas must be compressed into bottles and shipped by truck to filling stations, significantly raising costs.

However, biofuel is still more affordable than gasoline, because it is not subjected to the same taxation.

Drivers save about 40 U.S. cents per mile when using biofuel compared to gasoline, according to Mattias Goldman of Gröana Bilister the Swedish Association of Green Motorists.

Drivers of "green" cars also don't have to pay road tolls in Stockholm, and they park for for free in many of Sweden's larger cities.

About 40,000—or one percent—of Sweden's four million cars run on alternative fuels.

Last month, Sweden launched a new green car bonus program, which rewards the owner of a new eco-friendly car with 10,000 Swedish krona (1,400 U.S. dollars) in cash from the government.

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