Tuesday 7 August 2007

Europe's greenest city

It doesn't look like the heart of a green revolution. The smoke stacks stick up jarringly above the line of pine trees and don't make for the most scenic view as you meander around the clear blue waters of the nearby lake.

But it is this power plant that has helped the small Swedish city of Växjö become arguably the greenest place in Europe.

On closer observation, the only thing emerging from the chimneys is the faintest wisp of steam - and inside, it smells more like a sauna than a furnace. That's because it is not oil fuelling the plant, but woodchip and other wood waste from the area's sawmills. As well as generating electricity, it also supplies 90 per cent of this southern Swedish town with heating and hot water.

"We are in the middle of the woodshed and we wanted to take advantage of that" - explained Tommy Sandh, who works in the control room.

The gases produced as the wood burns are condensed into liquid form and are purified before they reach the chimney.

In addition, instead of dumping this liquid, the power plant pumps it around town - some gushes piping-hot out of the town's taps, the rest is directed through plumbing that runs through individual heaters, warming homes and offices.

The pile of wood chippings in the yard towers above head height and takes almost five minutes to stroll around. According to Mr Sandh, that's enough to keep Växjö warm on the snowiest day in winter, or supply it with hot water for a fortnight in summer. It's also a good way of using the paper industry's waste.

As well as the centuries-old Swedish policy of planting a new tree for every one felled, the ashes swept out of the furnace each day find their way back to the forest as fertiliser.

It was this biomass plant that netted Växjö the European Union's inaugural award for sustainable development this year - an accolade which some might say makes it the greenest city on the continent.

More than 10 years ago, when oil prices were hovering around $20 a barrel, Växjö announced its aim of becoming a Fossil Fuel Free City. Later, it set a date for that goal - 2050 - and then added intermediary steps - such as halving the carbon emission per inhabitant by 2010.

Already Växjö is well on course. It has clocked-up a 25 per cent reduction in per-capita emissions and, at 3.5 tonnes of carbon per person, it has the lowest urban level in Europe. It is certainly below the Swedish average of five tonnes and minuscule compared with the United States, where emissions are more than 20 tonnes per person.

However, according to Anders Franzen, the head of planning and development department at the city council, there is no room for complacency - "The battle in the energy sector has been won, yes - but the next battleground is transport."

While the cycle paths are busy on summer evenings as residents travel into town for a meal on two wheels - not four, it is still hard to get them to abandon totally their petrol-hungry Volvos.

The council owns a communal fleet of green cars that run on ethanol and is hoping to get residents to follow suit. Mr Franzen practises what he preaches and drives a Prius.

One carrot the council is offering is free parking for low-emission vehicles and it is also training its gaze on converting the public transport system. However, he added that the government in Stockholm must play its part.

The other innovation that Växjö is trying is wooden buildings - not only are they carbon-neutral, they blend harmoniously into the landscape.

No comments: