The green revolution sweeping Sweden

In Pitea, Sweden, the Markbygden wind farm is set to become Europe’s largest.
In Pitea, Sweden, the Markbygden wind farm is set to become Europe’s largest.

A boom of renewable-powered industries has found a home in northern Sweden, fueling the country’s ambitions of a fossil-free economy

Old twigs crunch beneath his boots as Claes Nordmark, mayor of Boden, steps out into a vast clear-cut area. He comes to a stop at a slope and motions toward an electrical substation nearby.

“Listen to that,” he says. “The atmosphere in Boden is crackling, just like that switchgear.”

If all goes to plan, in July start-up H2 Green Steel (H2GS) will start building the world’s first “fossil-free” steelworks in this Swedish town of 17,000, just below the Arctic Circle. It’s a multibillion-dollar project that would make a multimillion-ton impact on the climate, cutting over 90 percent of a regular steel factory’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The electricity may not be audible all over northern Sweden, but the buzz is tangible. A boom of renewable-powered industries has given rise to what has been dubbed a “green revolution.” A massive revamp is underway to decarbonize the state-run mines. Besides steel mills, the region hosts Europe’s first battery mega factory, called Northvolt Ett, along with fossil-free fertilizer and aviation biofuel factories. In the coming two decades, an estimated $100 billion to $150 billion will be invested and up to 100,000 jobs created in this sparsely populated and often overlooked region.

Put together, this is the centerpiece of Sweden’s 2045 net-zero carbon pledge and the country’s ambitions to become a front-runner in the quest for a fossil-free economy. However, questions loom over the impact on electricity supply, the environment and the way of life of the Sami, the country’s Indigenous population. Will Sweden pull it off — and at what cost?

“It feels fantastic and slightly surreal,” Nordmark says, musing on the change of fortune for his municipality. For the past eight years, Boden has been working to attract energy-intensive businesses using the excess power from its nine hydropower plants. This piece of land next to the switchgear was bought for that express purpose. Besides the steel factory, there are plans to make use of residual heat and oxygen from the hydrogen production to build greenhouses, fish farms and an outdoor pool.

“Imagine, when I grew up, I used to ski through these woods. Soon, I might go for a midwinter swim,” he says.

[In Amsterdam, a community of floating homes shows the world how to live alongside nature]

While green steel is still a dream in Boden, 20 miles to the southwest in the old steelworks in the city of Lulea, plans are underway at Hybrit — a different firm helmed by a private steel company together with state-run utility and mining companies Vattenfall and LKAB. The surrounding site is darkened by ashes from the old blast furnace, where iron ore was reduced into pure, molten iron using vast amounts of coking coal. Going forward, the aim is for iron to be produced using hydrogen made from wind power, smelted and refined using even more clean energy.

“The fact that hydrogen can be used for iron ore reduction is old knowledge,” says Martin Pei, chief technical officer at SSAB, the steel company that co-owns the operation. “What’s new is testing it at commercial scale.”

Last touches at the pilot hydrogen storage at Hybrit, a state-led venture in Lulea, Sweden, to produce fossil-free steel. The blast furnace in Lulea has been replaced with technology that uses hydrogen produced with renewable electricity. The Hybrit pilot plant in Lulea.

The course is carefully plotted out. Hybrit started operations in 2015 and is not planning to go commercial until 2026, but it’s already delivering samples of its first products. During the U.N. environmental meeting Stockholm+50 in early June, Volvo handed over to a customer its first vehicle — an articulated hauler — made with fossil-free steel that SSAB produced from Hybrit’s iron.

“Initially, people were very skeptical,” says Mikael Nordlander, a director at Vattenfall. “Now, customer interest is exploding. Manufacturers are already making their cars electrical, fossil-free materials are the next big thing.”

Finding greener ways to produce steel is increasingly urgent, as the industry accounts for 7 to 9 percent of global CO2 emissions. Companies in several countries are testing the same method being trialed in Sweden. In the United States, Boston Metals is trying out a process called molten oxide electrolysis, using an electric current to both reduce and melt the iron ore. Regardless of approach, the resulting product is 20 to 30 percent more expensive than regular steel, Hybrit calculates. But this amounts to a small portion of a vehicle or home appliance’s total cost, making it an attractive sell to ever more climate-conscious consumers.

More crucially, green steel is becoming the only way forward in the United States and the European Union, following an agreement the two struck in October that aims to have a standard in place by 2024. Under the plan, both parties would eventually place tariffs on, and possibly ban, imported steel with a high carbon content.

Northvolt Ett, Europe’s first battery mega factory in Skelleftea, Sweden. Sanna Backstrom, a communications associate at Northvolt, inside the factory. A lithium-ion battery cell produced at the Northvolt factory.

For Sweden, it’s also an investment in the country’s economic future. The government’s $40 billion bet on Hybrit could seem prohibitively large, but it’s already spurred a wave of new development. Besides the new jobs, a hefty increase in tax revenue has been used for new cultural centers, sports complexes and improved infrastructure. An Arctic region plagued by depopulation is now attracting top talent from Tesla, Google and Blue Origin.

“People want to be part of our journey not just because we’re a cool start-up,” says H2GS CEO Henrik Henriksson, “but because we do good.”

That depends on who you’re talking to, though. These ventures are flocking to Norrland in the first place for the glut of renewable electricity, from hydropower and wind. But the new factories are quickly turning the surplus into a shortage, with Hybrit alone set to gobble up more than a third of Sweden’s electricity generation.

New power generation will have to be developed, and the risks become apparent a few miles outside the town of Arvidsjaur, where the forest roars with the sound of Sami people bobbing through deep snow on scooters. As the spruces grow thin, the machines skid out onto a slushy lake, and here the reindeer they’ve been trailing are finally exposed, a tight, tan mass of almost 3,000. This is where the journey — the second-last leg in the Sami village of Ostra Kikkejaure’s annual move of their herd from winter to summer pastures — turns into more of a joyride for the 20-odd scooter drivers. Several of them carry children in their laps. Four-year-old Leia even drives her own pink-lacquered mini scooter, a gift from her grandfather, village chairman Johan Lundgren.

[The quest to keep carbon in North Carolina’s wetlands]

“As a reindeer herder, you do anything you can to pass on your passion,” he says, while the crew takes a break at the edge of the forest. Only about 2,500 people, or a tenth of Sweden’s Sami population, depend on reindeer herding — an industry with special protections under national law — but reindeer also hold a central cultural role for the entire community. The Sami eat reindeer meat, get warmth from their fur, carve ornaments from their horns and make art in their honor. Melting butter on a portable gas stove, Lundgren explains how changes in the climate and environment are making it ever more difficult to keep this lifestyle alive.

“But the biggest shift for us in the past 200 years, even bigger than the introduction of the snow scooter, is the wind farm,” he says.

The wind farm in question isn’t just any wind farm, but Markbygden, a project 174 square miles in size. Construction on the project began in 2008, and it will be the largest wind farm in Europe when its 700 or so turbines are finished in 2025. In some ways, Markbygden spawned the green revolution, because it broke ground for foreign renewable energy investments in the region. Since its launch, the number of wind turbines in the country has almost quadrupled, many of them having been built in Norrland.

Reindeer being herded over a lake outside Arvidsjaur. Reindeer herders from Ostra Kikkejaure working in a forest outside Arvidsjaur. A reindeer herder drinks coffee before work.

The wind farm meant a big change for Ostra Kikkejaure. As it covered a large part of the village’s winter pastures, the herders had to start moving their reindeer farther away over the cold season, by truck, to a place where natural grazing was not possible and had to be replaced with feed. The wind company covers most costs, but there are still concerns over this solution.

“When you feed your herd you need to keep it tighter together, which increases the risk for disease,” says Lundgren, the village chairman. “It’s not that we can’t see the importance of the green deal, but its impact on us is disproportionate, and this is just the beginning. If you continue taking a little piece here and a little piece there, in the end there is nothing left of our culture.”

Shifting a fossil economy to one powered by renewables requires lots of land. If all steel production in the world was to run on wind power-produced hydrogen under Swedish standards, the turbines would have to cover an area at least the size of Italy. Just to supply the two new steel plants in Norrland, six more projects the size of Markbygden have to be built. This is a highly unlikely scenario. For many years, wind power has been the only realistic form of new power generation in Sweden, especially since a 1980 referendum set a moratorium on nuclear power. However, skyrocketing electricity prices and a growing local opinion that wind turbines endanger landscapes and a once-stable electricity system have led to fierce resistance. Lobby organization Svensk Vindenergi says that last year, 78 percent of all plans for new wind farms were stopped, largely because of local protests.

“There’s been a hallelujah phase for wind power,” says Jan Blomgren, a professor of applied nuclear physics. “But now, there’s a budding sense among politicians from both sides of the aisle that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner.”

Meanwhile, the “green” industries hurtle on. H2GS has already presold half theestimated production of the start-up’s first five years to the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Electrolux and Miele, and it has signed a deal with Norwegian electricity producer Statkraft to cover a substantial amount of the company’s power needs.

“We need a shift from an administrative mind-set to a courageous one,” says CEO Henrikkson, a gust of wind rearranging his hair while he walks near the H2GS office in Stockholm. Nowadays, Henriksson says, major projects often grind to a halt because politicians and bureaucrats fear making mistakes.

“Instead, you should be rewarded for challenging the system. Nobody wants wind turbines in their backyard, but maybe there are compromises to be found,” he says.

“It’s one thing to set goals, but in order to reach them, you need to dare sacrifice something.”