Swedish forests spawn new ‘green’ diesel

As fuels derived from forestry industry waste power an increasing number of Swedish cars, The Local's Karen Holst discovers not everyone is convinced that this new biodiesel fuel will deliver long-term environmental benefits.

Swedish forests spawn new 'green' diesel

For decades, scientists have been foraging for viable alternative energy sources that don’t rely on the planet’s shrinking natural fossil fuel resources.

In recent years, rising concerns over traditional fuel’s harmful pollutants sparked a global rage for biofuels derived from biomass ranging from discarded corn husks to animal fats.

Earlier this year, Preem, a leading Swedish oil company, emerged as the world’s first company to offer an innovative biodiesel made from tall oil, a renewable by-product of the forestry industry.

“The future is our market and we know that we need to find new roads to replace fossil fuels,” says Thomas Ögren, spokesperson for Preem.

“We have a lot of tall oil in Sweden and now we have a process to make diesel from it.”

Known as Preem Evolution Diesel, this green diesel is composed of about one fifth raw material and according to the company, cuts carbon emissions by 16 percent when compared to traditional diesel, which corresponds to the leading carbon emissions rate-cut of any biodiesel on the market.

“The best thing about our biodiesel is that every diesel engine can drive with it, it doesn’t require a special engine, and it can be mixed with other diesels – it’s an easy choice,” adds Ögren.

The idea for using tall oil, a component also found in adhesives, inks, rubber and drill fluids, came from a creative Swedish entrepreneur Lars Stigsson.

After an initial meeting between Stigsson and Preem executives, a plan was hatched that drew in two other partners, forestry companies Södra and Sveaskog.

Six years later, with more than 65,000 work hours logged, 2 million test-kilometres driven and more than 600 million kronor ($96.5 million) invested, Evolution was born.

Its creation and launch outpaced competitors in Italy, Brazil and Ireland with similar research initiatives and attempts underway and by early April, Preem’s Evolution Diesel has been launched in 370 of their 600 stations across Sweden.

“We already had the best standard diesel in the world because it has fewer particles in it and now, with Evolution, no one in the world has a better diesel,” says Ögren, adding that the expensive initiative was entirely funded by private money as Preem received no help from the state.

Tall oil, also known as liquid rosin, is a gummy, yellow-black odorous residue extracted from black liquor when pulping mostly coniferous trees.

It has previously been considered a waste product by the paper and pulp industry.

“In the past, we delivered fuel to members of the forestry industry, but today they are the ones delivering fuel to us,” says Ögren of the new use found in tall oil and its increase in product value to foresters.

Now the raw material is collected, reprocessed and then split to a molecular level that is identical to regular petro-based diesel molecules at Preem’s new factory in Piteå in northern Sweden.

The tall oil is then transported to a refurbished bio-refinery in Gothenburg in southwestern Sweden where the product is further refined and then mixed with fossil diesel, resulting in Evolution.

Whereas most biodiesels on the market today offer a blend of 5 percent renewable material, Preem’s Evolution is a mix that consists of about 15 percent tall oil and 5 percent rapeseed oil, setting a new global height for renewable content.

In theory, the matching molecular structure between the two diesel components could make it possible to blend higher ratios of tall oil diesel with petro-based diesel, thus creating greener diesel fuels in the future.

Preem aims to produce about 100,000 cubic metres of crude tall oil per year and claims that diesel vehicles that run on the Evolution fuel will have the same torque, the same power, and attain the same fuel efficiency as ordinary diesel while not costing a single krona more.

“Our customers like easy choices and it is very important for us to give a better product at the same price,” says Ögren, who also states that if the government installs a tax on the currently exempt biodiesel fuel it will be “too expensive” to sell in Sweden.

The 16 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, when compared to traditional fossil diesel, amounts to about 250,000 tonnes.

Preem says this is the equivalent to the emissions from 120,000 cars per year.

Statistics from the national green vehicle organization, MiljöFordon, show a total of 4.6 million cars registered in Sweden, which means Preem’s reduced emissions amounts to less than 3 percent of the total number of vehicles in the country, however.

In addition, reports by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket) show that Sweden has the most fuel-thirsty fleet of vehicles in the European Union, and the carbon dioxide emissions of new petrol and diesel cars are still among the very highest despite a decrease of 5 percent in recent years.

And while Preem’s Evolution Diesel has received plaudits globally as a step forward, concerns about the sustainability of tall oil remain.

“It is a good product, but we should also be aware that the world’s tall oil (supply) is very limited and this blend will only serve a fraction of the need,” says Lars Lind, a biofuel expert employed with the Swedish specialty chemical company Perstorp.

“It is quite a big investment for a small impact with a quite limited raw material. While this is a step in the right direction, there are other alternatives to tall oil that are much more effective and should continue to be explored.”

Other biofuels on the market mentioned by Lind include those produced from vegetable oils, such as rapeseed, canola, soy and palm. Due to their need to share available arable land, these blends have sparked a frenzied debate around the impact caused to the food industry.

While Ögren applauds Evolution’s effectiveness and praises its independence from affecting food production, he does admit to tall oil’s limited availability.

“Tall oil cannot replace all fossil fuels in diesel but it is one of several solutions,” he explains.

“We must continue to find a mix of several renewable sources and continue to assess new alternative and sustainable sources that we have here in Sweden,” Ögren states.

Lind agrees.

“Diesel replacement is the best way forward since diesel engines are the best engine. And there is space in the market for all replacement efforts.”

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How Sweden’s Sami reindeer herders are being forced to adapt to climate change

The indigenous Sami people have herded reindeer in northern Sweden for generations, but climate change poses a new threat to their way of life and livelihood.

How Sweden's Sami reindeer herders are being forced to adapt to climate change
Reindeer pictured near the northern city of Kiruna. Photo: AP Photo/Malin Moberg

Once, the lynx, wolverines and eagles that preyed on their animals were the main concern for reindeer herders as they moved them to find food in the winter. But now Margret Fjellstrom and Daniel Viklund, a married couple from Sweden's indigenous Sami community with hundreds of tawny reindeer, worry about a new threat.

Shifting weather patterns in northern Sweden are forcing them to go further afield to find grazing for their hungry reindeer, pushing up costs and taking more time.

Dressed warmly in jackets and ski pants against the minus 17-degree-Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit) temperatures, the couple watched on a February morning as their animals pawed through deep snow for the lichen they eat. It's their main food source in winter on the hillsides near Sweden's Baltic Sea coast.

Back when snowfall like this was a regular occurrence, Fjellstrom's herder parents would follow the same migration routes year in, year out, stopping at tried-and-tested spots for food. But that isn't the case now.

“It can rain in January, it can snow in May, there's no logic to it any more,” Fjellstrom, 39, said, sitting with Viklund by their snowmobiles.

Photo: AP Photo/Malin Moberg

Between 1991 and 2019, parts of northern and eastern Sweden saw a rise in average temperature of nearly two degrees C compared to the 1860-1900 period, Sweden's meteorological institute said in a report. For several days in early January, temperatures in the north climbed about 10C more than normal, the institute said. And on January 2nd, three weather stations in central Sweden reported their highest temperatures for the month since 1971.

Unseasonably high temperatures cause the snow to thaw and freeze again when the cold returns, building up thicker layers of ice that prevent the reindeer from digging down through the snow to the lichen.

To ensure they will find food during the migration, the couple spends two months taking turns to scout out unfamiliar areas, before setting off with the animals. Moving the reindeer from their summer pasture now often involves navigating them around motorways, windfarms or hydroelectric projects. The journey this year took nearly twice as long as it would have done in predictable weather, Fjellstrom said.

The Sami have herded reindeer across areas of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia for generations and are thought to number between 80,000 and 100,000, with many living above the Arctic Circle. In Sweden, only the Sami are allowed to herd the animals, raised for their meat, pelts and antlers.

Fjellstrom and Viklund annually move their herd from Dikanas, a village 800 kilometres (500 miles) north of Stockholm, to the plains near Ornskoldsvik. They transport them first by lorry, then release them and follow by snowmobile, tracking them using GPS collars.

Viklund watched as the reindeer disappeared into the snow-dusted forest, before launching a drone with a speaker attached into the freezing air above. It allows him to keep track of the animals when poor snowfall makes travel by snowmobile impossible. He can also herd them on with recordings of his dog barking when they head to areas with little food or hazards like roads or windfarms whose turbine noise scares the reindeer.

“We're getting more and more days that don't look like this, the snow is just a few centimetres,” he said. “It's a way to adapt.”

Reindeer herding on the Vindelälven river. Photo: Grahame Soden

Concerned that the animals get enough to eat, the couple split their herd and asked Fjellstrom's cousin to move the other half. It's an added expense for 31-year-old Neila Fjellstrom but he understands the need.

The Sami peoples and their reindeer are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according to research. 

A “warming climate alters the vegetation conditions and threatens the reindeer's wellbeing and access to food,” Finland's University of Oulu and its Center for Environmental and Respiratory Health Research said in a study last year.

Many Sami are more worried about fluctuating temperatures now, than encroaching infrastructure, said Gunhild Rosqvist, a Stockholm University researcher into the effects of climate change in mountain and polar environments.

“I think their awareness of their vulnerability has increased a lot,” she told AFP.

At the annual Sami market in Jokkmokk above the Arctic Circle in early February, thousands of Sami mixed with tourists, just weeks before the new coronavirus forced countries around the world to introduce lockdowns. Reindeer products were proudly on display, from steaming pots of reindeer stew to soft pelts and knives with handles carved from antlers.

“Reindeer herding has been practised for many hundreds of years and it's an important part of Sami culture,” Kjell-Ake Aronsson, a researcher at the local museum, said. “Reindeer meat is an important product. A lot of people are related indirectly to reindeer herding.”

Sweden's Sami parliament estimates around 2,000 people are directly dependent on herding the country's 250,000 animals for a living. Away from the crowds, young Sami activists, in traditional outfits embroidered in blues and reds, gathered for a “climate strike” attended by Greta Thunberg.

Fjellstrom and Viklund's 17-year-old daughter Alva also spoke at the event and hopes to become a herder herself. But the increased effort needed for herding reindeer now makes Viklund worry about the future.

“I want to give my children the opportunity to do it,” he said, the sun casting long, blue shadows across the snow. “Climate change could destroy that dream.”

By Tom Little/AFP