Sunday, March 29, 2009

Renewable heating in Strömstad, Sweden

This map demonstrates renewable energy in Strömstad - over 50% of homes use some sort of heat pump.
Like in the US, many people in Sweden have been upgrading their heating systems in some way. In the town of Strömstad, for example, converting to a heat pump is economical just after a few years and saves from between 1/3 to 2/3 in heating costs (if not more). Strömstad was recently awarded the “heat pump city” award for the most heat pumps per capita. Even the hospital in Strömstad uses a heat pump, taking heat from the nearby sea. The city is a very good place to do ground source heat pumps because the terrain consists mostly of solid granite, which is very easy to drill through and obtain heat from.

The EkoPark in Strömstad demonstrates how heat pumps work
Air-to-air exchangers are also very popular here if ground source or geothermal heat pumps are not an option. Many people in this area also choose to upgrade their electric heating system by installing a wood pellet stove because it’s less expensive and better for the environment (the wood can be obtained locally). A few homes use solar as well, and two small individual wind turbines also exist in the city for individual buildings.

An air-to-air exchanger (top left) in a Swedish home
The Strömstad municipality addresses the environment for new construction as well. Because the ground consists mostly of granite, there is some concern about radon in the area, and new homes must be built with potential radon mitigation systems. Strömstad is also working toward maximum energy-efficiency of new buildings with a goal of newly constructed buildings meeting Passivhus standards.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Education is a key to successful eco-communities in Sweden

At EkoPark, we learned that transporting by train is much more energy efficient (almost 1000 times more!) than by car, bus, or truck.
I have noticed in Sweden is that environmental education is everywhere. In Göteborg we toured the EcoCentrum, and in Strömstad we toured the EkoPark. Both are year-round educational facilities that help people understand what the local community is doing and educate about environmental issues on multiple levels – recycling, energy, transportation, etc. I think it’s a combination of the permanent visibility of these centers and the government financial support (which Swedes understand is their own money from their taxes) that makes these popular visiting places. I also see that the desire to continually improve the environment in innovative ways makes these places fun and interesting.
How far does your food or building materials travel? We learned at Ekocentrum.
In all community projects we've visited, educating the public has created the most successful projects. We should be sure to always include environmental education as part of our "green" efforts, both before and after our projects our finished!
Educating the public was a key step to promoting both economic development and preserving cultural heritage of 3,000 year old rock carvings in the Tanum area. Picture taken at the Vitlycke Museet.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

How some swedish communities reduce pollution and promote fuel efficiency

Just a quick note – The Swedes are really interested in fuel efficiency and reducing pollution from vehicles. In addition to driving cars and buses fueled with bio gas, in some cities you may receive a fine for leaving your car idling for more than one minute. This is usually marked with a sign as you enter a city. Many Swedish cities use roundabouts which not only promote safety but also prevent stopping in traffic for too long. Companies with delivery vehicles will often offer training to their employees on how to drive in order to conserve fuel.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Swedish communities using garbage for energy Part 2 - the red bags

Previously I posted about the green bag plant. The story of the red bags is also interesting.

The red bags
The newly constructed Uddevalla Energi plant

We visited the Uddevalla Energi plant in Uddevalla, Sweden, where some of the red bags are sent to. The red bags theoretically contain items that are not organic, hazardous, electronic, recyclable, and that can be burned. Some acceptable examples of items might include diapers, clothing, and textiles. This actually includes some plastics, and the bags themselves are also burned.
The giant claw that feeds waste into the furnace. The furnace runs 24 hours a day.
Uddevalla was one of the first communities in Sweden to begin using district heating systems. The system was installed in 1965 and since 1985, when the biomass energy plant was built, using renewable energy has been part of Uddevalla’s heating system. The new waste incineration plant opened in August 2008 and is used in conjunction with the biomass plant to supply almost 100% of the city’s heat as well as provide electricity to the main grid. Fifty percent of electricity from the plant is used in Uddevalla and the other half is used in Trollhättan, a neighboring community. Employee vehicles and collection trucks run on biogas, and the electricity from the plant is used to power the plant and its facilities.

Forget that you might think trash is dirty - this waste burning facility was very clean!

While the plant was very clean, the burning of trash itself is a dirty process, and the Uddevalla Energi plant has state-of-the-art facilities to ensure clean air and clean water are produced from the process. The system itself loses very little energy by collecting and recycling steam and using it for both heat in the plant and to the district heating system. Slag produced at the plant is used in road construction. In fact, the only actually by-product from this plant is a type of sludge, and leave it to the Swedes to even find a use for that! The sludge is sent to an island in Norway that was once mined for gypsum and now needs to be recovered for environmental reasons. The sludge, when mixed with a certain Norwegian paint waste, creates the perfect pH to help restore this island back to more normal conditions.

An interesting trash fact – Sweden’s economy has been declining, which means that people are producing less trash. In order to keep up with the demand for energy, some waste burning facilities in Sweden have been importing trash from other countries.

One more interesting trash fact – Many Swedes are adamant about disposing of their old and unused medicine properly. Many pharmacies provide medicine recycling bags so that chemicals don’t end up in the soil or water supply. The bags can be returned to the pharmacy, who will dispose of them properly. These recycling programs exist for some pharmacies in the US but many people don’t know about them or use them, so if you don’t know, be sure to ask.

Swedish communities using garbage for energy Part 1 - the green bags

One man’s trash really is another man’s treasure – One thing that has really impressed me about Swedish communities is how they deal with their trash. In one area of Sweden where we stayed, we noticed that in addition to separating items for recycling, there were also red and green plastic waste bags in all of the homes. In the green bags you were to put organic material, and in the red bags should contain any waste that can burn that wouldn’t be recycled. Larger items or non-burnable items are taken to a separate waste facility in town, and recyclable materials are dropped off at recycling centers usually located in grocery store parking lots.

So what actually happens to the red and green bags? We were lucky enough to find out!!

The green bags
We visited Ragn-Sells Heljestorp AB, aka “the green bag plant” in Vänersborg. The plant has been running for 9 years, and with 2,000 trucks, it is the largest waste handling company in Sweden. At the plant, the red and green bags are separated, and the matter from the green bags is converted into biogas (in compress air form) that is used to fuel automobiles. The red bags are transported to other facilities to be burned for energy (we also visited a “red bag” plant, which I’ll talk about later. Many Swedish communities burn waste for energy but Ragn-Sells Heljestrop AB is the only one that is producing biogas from their waste in this particular way. The plant’s employees and trucks even use the biogas to fuel their own vehicles! The biogas can be used in most cars that run on natural gas. Many local cities use biogas for their buses as well. In Sweden there is no tax on cars if they run on biogas (including tolls, registration fees, etc.).

Sorting the green and the red bags
The plant receives on average 70,000 total bags a day – 25,000 of which are green bags. Each green bag creates enough biogas to drive a car for 2.5 km, and last year the plant produced as much biogas as the petrol equivalent of 1.2 million liters. In addition to the biogas, the plant also creates a liquid fertilizer that is certified by the EU to be eco-friendly.

The bags arrive to the plant to be sorted
In order to implement this program successfully, a lot of education to the public was needed. A giant booklet for every home in the area, television information, and demonstrations helped explain what needed to go in the red and green bags. Ten years ago, the program began with175 users; now 200,000 people participate. About 90% of the time, the products in the green bags, which carry the organic material (“anything that you put in your mouth” as they say) are correctly separated.
The bags are ripped open to uncover their contents and feed them into the biogas converter.
One thing I really found interesting is that in Sweden, product manufacturers are responsible for what happens to their packaging. This has created an incentive in the country to use packaging that can be recycled or burned.

Stay tuned for information about the “red bag plant”.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lessons from a sustainable farm in Sweden

Two days ago we arrived at Frugården, a farm located on the peninsula of Vänersnäs in lake Vänern, about 25 km from Vänersborg, Sweden. Frugården dates back to year 1550, and the large manor built in 1760 still exists today even after a fire in 1963. Frugården itself has 1,000 hectares of forest and 250 hectares of farmland and also contains 20 separate homes that are rented out. While the farm produces mainly forest products it also produces rapeseed and grain. One thing we are currently experiencing in Sweden is a new law that 10% of all farmland must be allowed to be fallow because of a food surplus (the farmers are paid for the unused land), and it is no exception at Frugården.
Wood furnace for main house at Frugården
The forests at Frugården are sustainably managed according to both FSC and PEFC standards. Frederick, the owner, says that he gets a better price for wood that is certified, and that his lands have always been managed with a forest management plan. The wood products that Frugården produces are some lumber but mainly pulp wood and wood for heating. Frederick has currently purchased a wood chipper in order to find a use for some of the branches leftover from milling oak lumber. He plans to chip the wood into fine flakes because they burn better than wood pellets and will be able to be fed automatically into burners he has at the farm. He will use the flakes to heat the farm but plans to sell them as well.
Wood chipper
Wood is a big heating source at Frugården as most of the 20 rental homes on the property contain wood burning stoves. The large manor is heated by a wood-fueled hot water heating system. The heating system contains 3,500 L of hot water which is piped into and out of the house, and is controlled by an electronic system. The wood furnace is located in a small building behind the manor, and is fed twice daily. In the summer the furnace is fed once a week for hot water use in the house. One of the other homes on the property uses an air-to-air exchanger in addition to a wood furnace to maximize the energy efficiency. Frederick has had such success with this method of heating that he has already laid piping to connect the main hot water heating system from the manor to another house located nearby, and will finish the installation this summer. He estimates that using wood in Sweden is 10% of the cost of using gas heating.
One of the many homes heated by wood at the farm
Frederick has also been trying to install wind turbines at Frugården as well. Located so close to the water, it would have a lot of wind potential, but because it is located with views of the lake, some community members are suggesting alternative places to have wind power. There are already currently four wind turbines located at one end of the peninsula by another farmer.
Wind turbines on the Vänersnäs peninsula
I was told that their barns are all painted red because the paint contains iron oxide that actually preserves the wood and lasts for a long time. Almost all homes on the countryside are painted red or yellow, and in all places the siding is wood. The wood siding here in Sweden is also installed up and down, which also preserves the wood because the rain runs down it instead of collecting it like it does on the style of siding we have in the US.
Red paint preserves the wood, as well as the long vertical siding (rather than horizontal)

I was fortunate enough to stay with Frederick and Catarina at Frugården while I was in this part of Sweden for a few days. In addition to using their own wood to heat their homes, they also grow most of their own food and buy fish from a local fisherman that also rents at Frugården. They also rent their land to hunters and can purchase meat from them if they’d like. They have a compost bin and also collect wine bottles to be crushed to use in making roads along the farm. Ash from the wood burning furnace is added to the compost as well. Inside the main house all of the bathrooms have dual-flush toilets and in-floor heating. The house has four wood-burning fireplaces. One person on the peninsula has bees and makes honey, and I was lucky enough to receive some as a gift while I was here!

All sustainable aspects at Frugården are sustainable are done with the limited resources they have – they live on a peninsula but really treat it like an island. We all need to remember that within our own community island we can find everything we really need to be sustainable, and don’t need to import materials, foods, or other resources in order to be sustainable.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


A few days ago in Alingsås we visited a school where technology and technical education around the Passivhus concept are taught. Passivhus is a type of extremely energy-efficient housing that is now being used in some places in Sweden. Alingsås has a few Passivhus’s, including a day care center in Stadskogen.

According to our tour, the first Passivhus was completed in 2002. The basic idea is to insulate and seal the building extremely well and use a heat recovery exchange system (recycling filtered warm air from bathrooms and kitchens back into the house), body heat, and heat from appliances as the heat sources. We were told that a secondary heating system can be installed if desired (if the house is left for a few weeks with no appliances or body heat, it can take a while to warm up again). Triple pane glass windows, typically wood frame with a break in the thermal bridge, are used. There is a special system used to apply the vapor barrier around windows and for homes with more than one level. Insulation is high-pressure blown-in cellulose (recycled newspaper). A blower door test is required prior to rigid insulation (after blown-in) to ensure the envelope is sealed properly. The Swedes measure envelope insulation in U-values (roughly the inverse of R-values) and I haven’t had a chance to convert them yet. The insulation is typically at least as follows, in U-value:
Walls: 0.10 – 40cm
Attic: 0.08 – 50cm
Foundation: 0.088 – 30cm
Windows: 0.80

Right now Passivhus construction is typically stick-built on site, but they are looking into ways of building prefabricated Passivhus homes (which are much more common in Sweden – 90% of Swedish homes are prefab). We were told that the cost of a Passivhus is 5% over normal, but I don’t know if that means normal for stick-built or normal for prefab. Sweden is having the same challenge of making existing housing more sustainable and energy-efficient, and Passivhus is also working on renovation projects. One project in Alingsås, Brogotten, is a multi-family Passivhus remodel success story – average energy use went from 216 kWh to 92 kWh in one study.
One thing I really brought away from this visit was that making energy-efficient buildings only gives the possibility of lower bills and an energy-efficient lifestyle – behavior is a very important determining factor to a projects success. We need to be sure to include homeowner/resident education about consumption practices as part of green building, as well as building the houses themselves. This is common sense of course, but realizing that Sweden has the same challenge really hit the message home.

Another interesting part of the visit was actually about Germany. In some areas of Germany, where if a project removes green space, that exact amount of green space must be put back into the project. Passivhus’s in Germany will often take the exact sod/grass from the site and put it right on the roof, which adds insulation in the winter and keeps the house cool in the summer. Apparently the weight of the added roof elements is not an issue for engineering because they have high snow load requirements just as Minnesota does.

One example of city planning in Sweden

A few days ago Rachel and I met with the city architect/planner of Alingsås to discuss some of the zoning laws and sustainability initiatives of the city. Sweden has a lot of forests and lumber, and one initiative in Alingsås is to use wood in building because it is local and a renewable resource (I have not had to convince a single Swede that wood is a good product so far - most seem amazed that some Americans believe we shouldn't use wood!!).

Pedestrian-only shopping street in Alingsås
Alingsås is also trying to make the city more safe and accessible. Part of this means incorporating the concept of what we call Universal Design so that buildings can sustain multiple uses and generations. For example, having door handles and faucets with levers instead of knobs that turn, wide doors for wheelchair access, rocker light-switches, and all necessary amenities on one level (bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, entryway). Safety is also important to Alingsås, and now all buildings are required to have an entrance viewable from the street. Garage doors should be positioned so that they can be see from the house (to prevent auto theft).
A pedestrian open-air shopping mall alley off the main shopping street
Alingsås also has a suggested target energy efficiency of 90 kWh per square meter for its buildings – Sweden’s target is 110 kWh per square meter. Alingsås has won prizes for its preservation practices as well, and has a preserved town center with shops and pedestrian-only streets. Overall, sustainability is high priority for the city, and the people of Alingsås seem very excited about it because it makes their city a better place to live and will atract more people to it.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


We are in the town of Alingsås, population 26,000, which has an improvement initiative called Alingsås 2019. Adding 2,000 additional housing units and improving sustainability and quality of life of its inhabitants are part of this initiative. Last night I got to take a walk through the new development called Stadsskogen that is a “city in a forest”. The land had initially been forest and will now be home to 1,000 new housing units, nestled in between the trees. Much of the forest land is being preserved and the homes are clustered between the trees. 300 have been built already in a range of housing types; single-family, multi-family, townhome, and “multi-generational” houses for larger-sized families which are common in Sweden. These particular units were built along a semi-circle so that the yards never face the neighbor’s, and yet all take in the view of the nearby lake. Bike and walking trails are scattered throughout the development, and the bus and train are within walking distance. The project involved many different developers, builders, and architects of all sizes; each one was given their own piece of land to develop in their own way so each section is a little bit different.

The city has also Nolhaga, what they call their “outdoor living room”, which is a large park in the center of the city. Alingsås is called the “wooden city” because of the large number of wooden buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, which are historically preserved. It is also home of the potato in Sweden, and hosts “Lights in Alingsås”, where innovative lighting designers create lighting installations to be on display for the month of October, drawing thousands of visitors.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

First Impressions from Sweden

Moss-covered Swedish forest
We made it safe and sound to Sweden today, and have been warmly welcomed to the small village of Borås. What is striking me so far is that the terrain seems very similar to certain parts of Northern Minnesota, only not as cold and quite a bit wetter. Today we had the privilege of hiking through a beautiful private Swedish forest (although in Sweden there is a rule that anyone can walk anywhere; there are no restrictions on going off the beaten path), and saw many birch trees, evergreens, and many different types of fuzzy moss that covered everything in multiple shades of green. The lakes here are not completely frozen but do have ice in them, and the snow is so wet that when we backtracked our steps our footprints had softened and dissolved into faint impressions.
Light occupancy sensors in kitchens and bathrooms are common.

A few things that are sticking out to me: One is that even in these small villages, in the tiny cottage we are staying at in the woods, there are “green” aspects implemented. The bathrooms all have light occupancy sensors and low-sone humidity-controlled bathroom fans (from what I can tell). The kitchen also has a light occupancy sensor. The toilets are all dual-flush. The cottage and the main house both have in-floor hydronic radiant heating systems (the main house is fueled by a wood pellet stove) and also have on-site waste filtration systems that result in potable clean water run-off.
Wooden siding is the most popular type of exterior siding in Sweden.
Wood is obviously a prevalent item here. Most houses have painted wood siding; even with the most basic floor plans and minimal windows, they appear very quaint and cute. Most roofs are metal, and some are clay tile, and all are pitched very steeply to allow rain and snow to slide off. Wood heating is very popular in this area.
I also learned a little today about a prefabricated construction company that manufactures the walls to have plumbing and electrical wiring installed within them before they even arrive on site. The insulation is some sort of crushed stone mixed with water, but not like cement or ICF’s, from what I can tell so far. I’m looking forward to getting more information on this system and hopefully will see it firsthand.
One last thing that strikes me is that the rural communities here seem to facing many of the same challenges as in Minnesota. Schools are closing, populations are dwindling, and jobs are being lost for a number of reasons. It seems that many communities here may see that by offering a clean, affordable, sustainable way of life, people may be able (and may choose) to stay in these areas. I can’t wait to find out more about the processes involved, how housing plays a role, and to see if energy is the primary focus.
Not too bad for one day – I imagine we’ll be learning a lot more in the next month. We can get internet from time to time but rarely have more than five minutes to be online – I’ll update when I can!