Eventually, the idea of a scaled-up Green Zone — an entire industrial region free of fossil fuels — started to take shape. Participants articulated three goals: increasing energy efficiency (producing enough renewable fuel to provide for their energy needs and then some), building a regional industrial base that could provide jobs and business development, and pushing the envelope of innovation. “If [our part of Sweden] is to be seen by the world as a leader,” says Carstedt, “we have to engage universities and other institutions in continual knowledge creation.”
Today, the BioFuel Region initiative in northern Sweden includes more than 200 people working actively for sustainability through student research projects and innovative efforts in local businesses, and in the fields of building and urban design, feedstock development, and ethanol production. In mid-2004, a pilot plant opened for producing cellulosic ethanol from wood chips, currently a waste by-product of Sweden’s large forestry industry. “There will be lots of process improvements that we can share with others,” says Carstedt. “The new production plant involves technologies that can be viable in many other parts of the world.”
Businesses, local governments, designers, and students are engaged in deep and ongoing conversations to establish common goals and visions. Carstedt is also helping coordinate a €25 million (US$39.4 million) global project sponsored by the E.U., involving 10 regions seeking to follow in northern Sweden’s footsteps. “The key is to be thinking 30 to 50 years ahead,” says Carstedt, “and developing processes, designs, and sources of energy supply that are sustainable over that time horizon. To get the reduction in emissions we need in the world, we need systems change. This means people working together to create different automobiles, buildings, energy infrastructures — and lots of things that have never existed.”
Other success stories share many characteristics with the Sweden experience. Some, like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification system, were developed and championed by industry groups (in this case, the United States Green Building Council). Some have been led by companies, others by government agencies. In all cases, people learn to seek allies outside their own organizations, and although the long-term benefits require both courage and the willingness to adapt and learn along the way, the short-term benefits often tend to exceed expectations.
For example, there is significant money to be saved. Companies in all sectors, including IBM, Alcoa, and Wal-Mart, have achieved massive savings from reducing waste and energy usage. DuPont saved $3 billion. General Electric Industrial saved $12.8 million per year just by upgrading the lighting in its plants to its own high-efficiency products. Ford has dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to paint a new car as it comes down the assembly line, by inventing a technology that applies three coats of paint simultaneously. This eliminates the need for costly, energy-intensive drying equipment. The change will allow Ford to reduce CO2 emissions from production by 15 percent and volatile organic compound emissions by 10 percent. The process will also reduce painting time by 20 percent. Some computer companies, Google and IBM among them, have found that energy efficiency gives them a competitive edge — because powering and cooling computers over time can cost more than the hardware.