If only we were Sweden.
“What I know about Sweden, I think, offers us some good lessons. Number one, the work you have done on energy I think is something the United States can and will learn from. Because every country in the world right now has to recognize if we are going to continue to grow and improve our standard of living while maintaining a sustainable planet, we are going to have to change our patterns of energy use. And Sweden I think is far ahead of many other countries,” said an admiring President Barack Obama during a press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt during a visit to Stockholm Wednesday. The White House issued a press released headlined, “The United States and Sweden — global leaders on clean energy and climate change,” that praised Sweden’s technological and economic progress and said the two countries share a “dynamic global partnership.” One environmental publication declared Sweden “the most sustainable country in the world.”
Reading this I imagined a renewable paradise, a Nordic subarctic landscape thick with Swedish-made 400-foot wind turbines, pure white, whirling and dancing across the horizon and far out into the Baltic Sea. I imagined geothermal steam plants in town squares and photovoltaic roofs on formerly thatched cottages, and Chinese-owned Volvo turning out solid and boxy electric staionwagons for the eager public, newly enriched by the thriving green economy.
That’s not exactly it. Sweden is heavy into renewables, and good for them, but it actually bears a closer resemblance to Washington state than the renewable nirvana I imagined. Sweden gets 53 percent of its electricity from (insert drumroll) … hydropower. The country is blessed with swiftly flowing rivers and wise people decades ago decided to make use of the resource — the power of falling water. It burns nothing and emits no carbon. The current residents of Sweden are grateful, or should be.
Sweden gets another 40 percent of its electricity from (another drumroll) … nuclear. “Does President Obama know that Sweden is 40 percent nuclear?” was the headline on Real Clear Energy. The editors note that Sweden, with 10 operating reactors, produces a higher percentage of its power from nuclear sources that any country in Europe, save nuke-heavy France.
The environmentalists swoon. Sweden produces well over 90 percent of its electricity from sources that emit no carbon whatsoever. Fossil fuels are only a blip on the graph. The Swedes must be forward-thinking and wise.
Indeed, but nearly all of their carbon-free power comes from two sources environmentalists in the United States have alternately vilified or ignored. The “most sustainable country in the world” would be struggling to meet the renewable portfolio standard in Washington state, since 95 percent of its carbon-free power would count for nothing. Swedish wind power is also barely a blip on the graph, making 3.5 percent of its electric supply on a good day. Electricity production per capita in Sweden is roughly comparable to the United States.
The president is right. There is much to admire in Sweden. Its economy is relatively good, its power clean and plentiful. Most of this stems from a deliberate effort to take advantage of its natural resources through hydroelectricity, and practical technology, through nuclear. The good fortune is firmly rooted in decisions made half a century ago, and exploited by sensible people today. The president of course is welcome to travel to Washington state to praise our sustainable similarities, even those our state won’t count as renewable.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.