Rosenlundsverket, a heating plant in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Rosenlundsverket, a heating plant in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo credit: Arild Vågen via Wikimedia Commons

Sweden has successfully begun a transition to a low-carbon energy system, reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 24% from 1990 to 2014 and by more than 40% since the mid-1970s.

In terms of energy for heating, the share of fossil fuels is now below 5%. This has been achieved by removing oil and other fossil fuels for heating in both detached homes and blocks of flats over the past 50 years. Fossil fuel energy has been replaced by both district heating and electricity through resistive heating and heat pumps, which provide up to 75% of the energy demand for heating in buildings.

While in terms of reducing CO2 emissions Sweden’s efforts to transition to a low-carbon economy have been largely successful, the heat energy system is still locked in to supply-dominated heat production with the overarching objective of self-sustained production. There is little focus on reducing demand for heating as a sustainability practice.

Today, district heating delivers more than 50% of the heat in the building stock, compared with about 6% across the EU. Another 20 to 25% of the heat is generated from electricity, much of it through heat pumps. Overall, Sweden has the highest share of renewable energy for heating in the EU, and its experience could provide useful insights for low-carbon transitions in other countries.

The practice of incinerating waste to generate heat in district heating plants is increasing, despite overarching ambitions to recycle it instead. There is also resistance from the dominant actors in the district heating domain to more stringent energy efficiency standards for buildings that would align Sweden with its long-term goals and with EU directives.

The need to renovate Sweden’s building stock, rising temperatures following climate change, and tightening EU directives on energy efficiency and energy performance of buildings, will lead to less demand for heat energy. The heat system will face challenges of growing importance unless it adapts to these pressures.

This policy brief is based on Dzebo, A. and Nykvist, B. (2017) A new regime and then what? Cracks and tensions in the socio-technical regime of the Swedish heat energy system. Energy Research & Social Science. 29 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2017.05.018


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