The Nordic countries are going through their own energy transition, but via a different route, said Pekka Lundmark, president and CEO of energy company Fortum.
While Germany's energy transition began with a move away from nuclear power, the Nordic energy transition is about moving away from coal-fired power plants, said Lundmark, whose company says it is the third largest power generator in the Nordic countries.
Nuclear energy is climate-friendly, at least compared to fossil fuels, but carries with it a number of other environmental and safety risks.
“We are implementing in a way our own Energiewende in the Nordic countries,” Lundmark told journalists on Monday (20 March) at a Berlin conference on Germany's energy transformation, using the German word for "energy transition".
“But because of the geographic location and because of the even harder winter that we have up in the north, we have taken slightly different paths towards the same goal.”
Lundmark did not criticise Germany directly, stressing that both Germany and the Nordic countries “probably have good reasons for their choices”.
However, Lundmark was clear why he thought coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, should be consigned to history first.
Gathered by German think tank Clean Energy Wire, Lundmark told a group of journalists that his company - but probably also the Nordic countries where it operates - “are so concerned with climate change and emissions, that we feel it is even more important to phase out coal, to deal with emissions” than to get rid of nuclear energy.
While Germany has a relatively large share of renewable electricity, much of it is still generated by coal stations.
On Monday, the German Environmental Agency announced that carbon emissions had increased slightly in 2016.
“We have made very careful calculations what the different alternatives would be,” said the CEO, adding that “based on those calculations, we have decided that the highest priority needs to be decarbonisation and getting rid of coal".
Lundmark went on to argue that “We have decided to phase out coal first, and to use nuclear as a transition technology, and then in the next phase after that, see how also that could be phased out so that it becomes completely renewable. Germany is doing it the other way around.”
Fortum provides power and heat in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, and India.
A third of Fortum's power generation in 2016 was nuclear energy, with another third coming from natural gas – which is also a fossil fuel, but produces less CO2 per terawatt-hour compared to coal.
Some 28 percent of Fortum's electricity was generated with hydroelectric power. In Europe, however, the energy company said it was 96 percent CO2-free in 2016. Its two main electricity sources in Europe last year were nuclear power (51 percent) and hydroelectric power (44 percent).
Lundmark noted that Finland and Sweden have long cold winters, and heavy industry such as steel mills and paper mills.
“Knowing that the electricity demand is highest when it's high pressure and a cold winter day, when there is no sun and no wind, it's very hard to see how we would be able to phase out coal and nuclear at the same time.”
“It's mathematically not possible, at least we have not been able to do that. That forced us to make a prioritisation and the conclusion was that we want coal to go first,” added Lundmark.
He said his company is also “decarbonising” in the heating sector.
“When we talk about decarbonisation, it is very important to remember that it is not only about electricity. Electricity is about 20 percent of energy consumption. Heating is often 50 percent.”
Shift to renewables
Fortum's senior vice president of public affairs, Esa Hyvaerinen, noted that in Stockholm, Fortum is heating buildings with mostly renewable energy.
“We are using waste heat from the industry, like data centres, they have cooling needs. We are using public buildings. We are taking the heat of there and putting it in the heat networks,” said Hyvaerinen.
Many people think of wind power or solar when they hear the phrase renewable energy. However, in the Nordic region, other types of renewable energy are more prevalent.
In Norway, the largest share of renewable energy is provided by hydroelectric power. In Iceland, it's geothermal power.
In Sweden, Denmark and Finland, it's biomass and renewable waste, which account for around a quarter of all energy supplies. Biomass is the burning of organic material, and some question if it is always carbon neutral.
In 2014, Denmark had the EU's largest share of wind power in the final energy mix: 6.7 percent, compared to the 1.4 percent average.