Mr. Green Car: Bioenergy Days: Going ‘green’ on the streets

Even Mr. Green Car got in on the act--displaying his vegetable oil-powered 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit--it fit the theme. Many attendees and passersby were interested in this novel way to fuel a car from a renewable source. Photo by Allen Penticoff

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

Rockford recently hosted the International Bioenergy Days. The first of these events took place in conjunction with the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneurial Days held in Lidköping, Sweden, during August 2006. The bioenergy aspect of the event grew into an event of its own, with the event moving to Mankato, Minn., in 2008 and back to Lidköping and Tröllhattan, Sweden, in 2009. Rockford’s strong Swedish heritage was a natural fit, as is the expansion of enterprise in the field of bioenergy, so the event came to Rockford for the first time.

The event started with exhibits open to the public Sept. 26 at and in front of the Coronado Theatre in downtown Rockford. While lightly attended, those who did come were quite interested in the information available. The focus of Bioenergy Days is the commercialization of bio-fuel and alternative energy, though some focus is on efficiency and green ways of doing things. There were two days of seminars and top-notch speakers, including the Swedish ambassador to the United States, Jönas Hafstrom. There were people from around the world, but the greatest presence was local business interests and those from Sweden. On the third day, a bus tour went to the Biovantage biodiesel facility in Belvidere, Ill., the Adkins Energy ethanol plant in Lena, Ill., Freedom Field in Rockford, and to an energy-efficient house being constructed by Rockford East High School and Lidköping students just east of SwedishAmerican Hospital. As a result of the generosity of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, I was able to attend the entire event, and came away with much new information for future Mr. Green Car columns.

The overall view, as expressed by the Swedish ambassador at the first luncheon, boils down to this: Sweden has no natural energy resources to speak of—no oil fields, no access to natural gas pipelines. In the 1970s, they were as inefficient as the U.S. is now. But since the wake-up call of the Arab oil embargoes, they have consciously worked to wean themselves from imported oil. This makes them a leader in energy efficiency and production of renewable energy and biofuels. Today, 40 percent of their energy comes from renewable resources.

Much of Sweden’s energy comes from nuclear power, although Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents caused them to reconsider nuclear power and plan to shut down their nuclear plants by 2010. They have since reconsidered this plan, and have only shut down two of their 12 power plants, realizing that the zero emissions is very important to the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere. The Swedes are very environmentally-aware citizens with a healthy democracy that trusts its government and participates by having an 84 percent voter turnout in their recent national elections. They know they must be strong at home to be strong in business abroad. Although the ambassador said they expect much of their new business growth to be in green technology, he admits the United States has far more entrepreneurial spirit than Sweden does, so their present lead may not last.

While use of fossil fuels is still predominant in the Swedish transportation system, they encourage innovation and use of alternative fuels by having incentives to own “green cars.” One of three cars sold in Sweden is a “green car,” in part because of a rebate program and perks like free parking in Stockholm. Gas stations must sell bio-fuels (bio-diesel and bio-natural gas). Tax incentives make driving green attractive as well. They have instituted carbon dioxide taxes on top of energy taxes, with a higher rate on households and lower rates for industry (industry uses far more—so pays more). But the overall cost to Swedes is neutral, as they have lowered their income taxes. Such taxes have been proposed in the United States with similar reductions in income taxes, but they are presently politically dead in the water.

The Swedes drive on 43 percent renewable fuels now, with goals of 50 percent by the year 2020 and no fossil fuel vehicles by 2030. One of the sources of fuel they are exploiting is what is being called “biogas.” Biogas is the generic term for methane that is produced from decomposing matter. Energy that was once wasted in agriculture is now captured, cleaned and compressed for use. This includes sewage treatment plants. A somewhat dirtier biogas can be found in landfills, but the Swedes do not have landfills. They recycle everything and burn what is left and create energy with that. The city of Lidköping is a leader, even among the Swedes, in use of energy from renewable sources. Rockford’s Freedom Field has similar biogas production facilities and power generation at the Rock River Water Reclamation District facilities on Kishwaukee Street in Rockford.

A few years ago, the then-governor of the state of Michigan visited Sweden and was impressed with their efforts at energy independence. Since then, the Flint (Mich.) Center of Energy Excellence and Kettering University have been working on making biogas viable in the United States. They had a Chevy pick-up truck on display outside that had been modified to use biogas. The set-up is essentially the same as one would need to run on compressed natural gas, so the technology has been around a while. Some differences exist in the two gases, and the Swedes are working on having their domestic vehicles optimized for operation on biogas. Lidköping had a problem with diesel bus fumes and switched them to operate on biogas. They even sell the leftovers from the biogas production as fertilizer to farmers. They waste nothing.

I cannot boil down my 12 pages of notes and three days of learning about bio-energy to fit one small Mr. Green Car column, so I’ll pass on some more things I learned over the next several weeks, as much of what involves the commercialization of bioenergy is the direction we need to go with our transportation options. Stay tuned.

From the Oct. 6-12, 2010 issue

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