The Most Powerful Man in Sweden

The Most Powerful Man in Sweden

August 12 2021

Torbjörn Wahlborg directs over half of the electricity generation in Sweden as a senior officer of the Swedish utility company Vattenfall. The company is also responsible for substantial generation in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK. In a recent trip to Sweden, Doug McKeige, CAPM 2.0 Editor-in-Chief, spoke with Torbjörn about the success his country and his company have enjoyed in producing clean energy.

Doug McKeige: Torbjörn, how is Sweden coming along on the path to net zero?

Torbjörn Wahlborg: We had some foresight, luck and the natural resources to build out electrical generation in Sweden without fossil fuels. We run our country with hydropower from rivers in northern Sweden and with 6 nuclear reactors that have 10-20 years of further service life. We have also built out a large amount of onshore wind turbines and many Swedes have installed rooftop solar. The other countries where we do business are still heavily reliant on coal and natural gas. We actually export a fair amount of the power we make to our neighboring European countries with undersea power cables.

DM: What is the path forward for these countries?

TW: The EU is pedal down trying to get to net zero, though we are not fully sure how we get there. Vattenfall has been a big developer of offshore wind and plans are well underway in Europe to build 60 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 (300 GW by 2050) with wind turbine blades that stretch wider than two football fields. The construction and installation of these turbines pose enormous challenges, but we seem to be succeeding. This is a big part of the solution as well as multiplying the amount of solar energy.

DM: We have only two nuclear power reactors under construction in the U.S. in Georgia and they are years late and are expected to cost $12 billion each. Are new nuclear plants part of the clean energy solution for Europe?

TW: Europe is very divided in the view on nuclear power. Germany and Belgium are turning theirs off. At the same time, France, UK and Finland are building new ones and countries like Slovenia, Poland, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Hungary are seriously considering nuclear new build. The need for plannable fossil free power is increasing in Europe. $12 billion a copy, that is too much; however, I believe that we could build new ones for a lot less. We are able to run our existing plants at very competitive rates. I don't think we should exclude any specific production technologies when combatting climate change.

DM: Beyond wind, solar and possibly new nuclear generation, what else is needed?

TW: We have to come up with a way to economically store massive amounts of solar and wind energy. Thousands of brilliant scientists and engineers the world over are working on the problem and there are many promising technologies being developed. I am hopeful. In addition, the rest of the world should heat and cool their homes and buildings without oil or gas. In Sweden, we use district heating based on biofuels or traditional electric heat and heat pumps almost across the board. Sweden is also banning the sale of gas/diesel cars after 2030.

DM: Industries are responsible for around 30% of all emissions. What about there?

TW: Vattenfall is in a partnership with the Swedish steel maker SSAB and mining company LKAB which has just recently built a prototype steel factory using fossil free hydrogen. Next, we are building a commercial size steel plant. We have large iron ore deposits in northern Sweden where we also have plenty of hydropower and plenty of fresh water. We are going to run the water through electrolyzers powered by electricity from fossil free power. The electrolyzers convert the water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. The hydrogen gas is then used to convert iron ore to steel. Volvo has already put in an order for this fossil free steel to use to make its cars.

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