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Sustainable development in Sweden

October 19, 2011

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The most significant aspect of sustainable development in Sweden is their long-term commitment to the endeavor. It took 20 years to build up the Lidkoping district heating system to meet 90 percent of the heating needs for their businesses and homes. Using garbage as a fuel saves on the cost of energy and reduces the need for landfills.

Another component essential to their success was their acceptance of the need to raise tax rates on gasoline, so they pay more than twice as much as Americans for transportation fuel. Increased revenue from fuel taxes was targeted at programs to improve energy efficiency of their homes and cars, expand the use of public transportation and develop bike paths linked to schools, trains and bus depots to provide alternative means of transportation.

We rode several trains from the airport to reach Lidkoping. They were electric-powered, smooth, clean and fast. Well-mannered passengers and train personnel made travel pleasant. While faced with the normal uncertainties of making transit connections in a new setting, we never felt threatened or intimidated in depots and trains.

At the time of the first oil crisis in the mid-1970s, industrialized countries, including the United States, Sweden and Germany, initiated programs to improve energy efficiencies, curb excessive auto use, employ more mass transit, develop cleaner sources of energy and support research programs to develop technologies and strategies to lessen the industrialized world’s dependence on imported oil.

With the return of cheap energy prices in the mid-1980s, energy programs were dramatically curtailed in the United States, while Sweden and Germany continued their efforts and became leaders in sustainable practices.

Their success in promoting renewable energy, green infrastructure and efficient transportation benefited from supportive government policies. Higher energy prices strengthened their economies, as they provided incentives to reduce energy use and design more efficient energy technologies that reduced and stabilized household energy bills in times of widely fluctuating energy prices.

A few months after oil prices hit $147 in summer 2008, the economic collapse set in. While corrupt banking practices were a major contributor, peak oil advocates warn if an economic recovery does occur, increased demand for oil will send prices skyrocketing again, producing another economic setback.

We know how to reduce our oil and fossil fuel dependence through efficiency and renewable energy. We should design community energy policies that implement what we already know how to do. Wise government policies targeted at achieving long-term sustainability goals would be a sound investment, as Sweden and Germany have demonstrated.

Upgrading lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation efficiency in public buildings is essential. Improving bike paths and lanes, calming streets to make them safe for bikes, having bike racks and changing facilities for bikers in central locations and bike carriers on buses could reduce car use. Policies targeting rooftops for solar installations could help reduce energy costs.

Communities should direct more public investment into energy efficiency practices that benefit the public and keep more of their energy dollars in the community.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Oct. 19-25, 2011, issue

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