Sustainable Fuels in the Nordic Countries

By Dr Alberto Varone

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In recent years, the Nordic countries, and especially Sweden, Iceland and Denmark, have been giving serious thought to the option of becoming entirely independent of fossil fuels in the coming decades. Indeed, Sweden aims to have a fossil-free terrestrial and marine transportation system by 2030 – as a first step on the way to the fully electric transportation system envisaged for 2050. A workshop on Methanol as fuel & energy storage at the University of Lund in Sweden in March was one of many recent events in Scandinavian countries on the production of fuels from non-fossil resources for use mainly in the transportation sector – for example the PROMSUS workshop in Gothenburg and the CO2 electrofuels seminar in Reykjavik.

A possible fuel cycle for renewable methanol (CH3OH). Hydrogen is obtained from water electrolysis while the CO2 input can come from a variety of sources, including, in a long-term perspective, direct air capture.

A possible fuel cycle for renewable methanol (CH3OH). Hydrogen is obtained from water electrolysis while the CO2 input can come from a variety of sources, including, in a long-term perspective, direct air capture.

 The role of sustainable fuels in energy transitions

Replacing fossil fuels is an enormous and challenging undertaking with huge implications for technology, the economy, the environment and society. Selecting the right systems and fuels will be essential for the success of this venture. In Scandinavia, as in Germany, the shift away from fossil fuels is a mainstay of energy transition policies, along with a reduction in fossil fuel imports, a cut in greenhouse gas emissions, an increase in the share of renewable energies and improved energy efficiency. The production of sustainable synthetic fuels from recycled CO2 emissions (from industrial sources or forestry residues) using renewable energy to power electrolysis processes may accelerate the displacement of fossil-based energy and contribute to achieving many of these goals.

The international speakers at the Lund workshop discussed the technological and scientific issues connected to the synthetic-fuel cycle, for instance, the different aspects of the well-to-wheel chain. They also presented the Swedish Government’s plans to introduce incentives and support schemes for alternative fuels. Indeed, as the technologies for the production of these fuels have reached, or are nearing, industrial maturity, the discussion is increasingly shifting to the regulatory and policy-related dimensions of the issue.

 A major test case: methanol as a marine fuel

The workshop focused in particular on the use of renewable methanol as a substitute fuel for internal combustion engines. This has already been the subject of extensive research, laboratory-scale experiments, and field tests, such as those carried out over more than a decade by the Swedish truck manufacturers Volvo and Scania. Methanol has been shown to be an efficient fuel, which is cleaner than conventional fossil-based fuels such as petrol. It is therefore not surprising that the major Scandinavian ferry company Stena and the marine engine producer Wärtsilä have recently turned their attention to methanol as a cost-effective substitute fuel for marine transportation that complies with the regulations and targets recently imposed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). These new rules were introduced at the beginning of 2015 to improve the environmental performance of shipping, especially in SECA regions (Sulphur Emission Control Areas) where stricter controls are in place to minimise airborne emissions of various pollutants (e.g. SOx, NOx, ODS and VOC).

 The Nordic way to CCU and sustainable fuels

Sustainable fuel schemes rely on the input of a carbon source, such as captured CO2 emissions. As such, they represent a subset of the Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU) approaches that seek to transform CO2 from a liability to an asset. In rendering the whole fuel cycle carbon-neutral, the challenge lies in ensuring that all inputs are renewable. What carbon sources can guarantee that final net emissions are lower than conventional fuel cycles? In the case of the Nordic countries, the answer is forest biomass (stem woods, tops and branches, stumps) and waste from the agriculture and forestry sectors, which is expected to increase in the coming years. Some pilot projects are already deriving syngas and synthesising fuels for transportation from this waste – notably the residual black liquor from the paper industry – but the energetic value of the final product is low and costs are not competitive.

The strategy for the next industrial installations, which was highlighted in the workshop conclusions, will be to enhance these processes using electrolysis powered by surplus renewable electricity. The hydrogen produced through water electrolysis will be used to further energise forest industry waste, making the most of its carbon content and synthesising fuels that can compete with their fossil counterparts.

This is, of course, only one possible approach to sustainable fuels and CCU. Alternatively, CO2 could be obtained from conventional power plants or any other large point source. The Nordic countries are following their own path, based on national specifics and available local resources. Different contexts, for example, areas where biomass is less readily available, might call for different solutions. But the Nordic efforts in this field will still provide valuable lessons for any country wishing to make sustainable fuels an important component of their energy transition strategy.

Header photo: courtesy of Stena Line

Illustration: Robin J. White, The Sustainable Synthesis of Methanol – Renewable Energy, Carbon Dioxide and an Anthropogenic Carbon Cycle, in Trevor Letcher, Janet Scott, Darrell Patterson, ed., Chemical Processes for a Sustainable Future, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2014.

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