When this city vowed a decade ago to wean itself from fossil fuels, it was a lofty aspiration.
But already, Kristianstad and the surrounding county, with a population of 80,000, essentially use no oil, natural gas or coal to heat homes and businesses.
But this area in southern Sweden, the home of Absolut vodka, has not turned to solar or wind power. Instead, as befits a farming and food processing region, it generates energy from ingredients like potato peels, manure, used cooking oil and pig intestines.
A 10-year-old plant outside of town uses a biological process to transform the detritus into biogas, a form of methane. That gas is burned to create heat and electricity, or is refined as a fuel for cars.
The city also burns gas emanating from an old landfill and sewage ponds, and wood waste from flooring factories and tree prunings.
Over the last five years, many European countries have increased their reliance on renewable energy, from wind farms to hydroelectric dams, because fossil fuels are expensive and their overuse is, effectively, taxed by the European Union.
In Germany alone, about 5,000 biogas systems generate power, in many cases on individual farms.
Kristianstad has harnessed biogas for a regional energy makeover that has halved its fossil fuel use and reduced the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by one-quarter.
“It’s a much more secure energy supply – we didn’t want to buy oil anymore from the Middle East or Norway,” said Lennart Erfors, the engineer who is overseeing the transition. “And it has created jobs in the energy sector.”
Biogas creates emissions when burned, but far less than coal and oil do. And unlike natural gas, biogas is renewable: it is made from biological waste that would otherwise decompose in farm fields or landfills, releasing heat-trapping methane and contributing to global warming, polluting the air and possibly affecting water supplies.
Kristianstad’s start-up costs, covered by the city and through Swedish government grants, have been considerable: the centralized biomass heating system cost $144 million, including constructing an incineration plant, laying networks of pipes, replacing furnaces and installing generators.
But officials say the payback is already significant: Kristianstad now spends about $3.2 million each year to heat its municipal buildings rather than the $7 million it would spend on oil and electricity. It fuels its municipal cars, buses and trucks with biogas fuel.