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Science, Technology and Selling of Biofuels in Sweden

Research project The general research question of the present programme can be stated as follows: Why have biofuels such as ethanol – despite knowledge, available resources and the many oil-crises in the past – never managed to replace oil as a fuel?

From this point of departure the purpose of the programme is to explore the historical, cultural and gendered dimensions of biofuel, and illuminating how historically resonant discourses of potential benefits and uses, threats and fears, have formed an integral part of the efforts to establish ethanol as a ”fuel of the future” in Sweden. The programme will accommodate three projects on ethanol production and debate (1) during the first half of the 20th century, (2) during the oil crisis of the 1970s, and (3) today as it is represented in the work of the regional organisation BioFuel Region. Parallel to these projects in history of technology, environmental history and science and technology studies, a media and communication study (4) of the representations of biofuels in Swedish mass media will highlight the role of public images in the current history of ethanol in Sweden. By studying both the hundred year old history of ethanol, and the complex situation and mediated discourse of ethanol today, the programme will provide theoretical and empirical knowledge of importance for the present biofuel enterprise and the work conducted by actors and institutions in order to reach a sustainable development.

Head of project

Christer Nordlund
Professor, other position

Project overview

Project period:

2007-07-01 2010-12-31


Finansår , 2008, 2009, 2010

huvudman: Christer Nordlund, finansiar: Formas, y2008: 1900, y2009: 1900, y2010: 1900,

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious studies

Research area

History, History of ideas, Media and communications

Project description

Why is it so difficult to effect a shift from oil to biofuels? Global climate change due to an increased greenhouse effect is one of the most urgent, and at the same time most complex, environmental questions of our time. Since global warming seems to be a result of the combustion of fossil fuels, a systematic replacement of these fuels is of paramount importance. In addition to environmental considerations, oil dependency has important financial and security implications as well. Regardless of how “sustainable development” is defined or conceptualized, societal systems based on oil will never be sustainable in the long term (Lee, Holland & McNeill, 2000). Like the shift in energy regime from wood to coal in the 19th century, and from coal to oil in the 20th century, it is most likely that we will face a shift from oil to something else in the 21st century (McNeill, 2000).

However, when it comes to new fuel this “something else” is still a highly contested area. The fact is that the presumptive shift is confronted by conflicting interests, which create “bottle necks” for sustainable governance and management. Actors in these conflicts are not only national and international oil companies and the environmental movement in general. As in other complex cases concerning the environment, there are numerous other advocates and opponents as well (Mårald & Nordlund, 2003).

In order to facilitate the production of fuels that are renewable and do not increase the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, extensive scientific and technological research on “alternative fuels” and “green techniques” is being conducted today in many countries all over the world, including Sweden. Simultaneously, these approaches are frequently “sold” via marketing and public relations. In accordance with the present hegemonic discourse on ecological modernization, the motives behind replacement are not only environmental but also financial (Hajer, 1995; Jamison, 2001). On the one hand, alternative fuels must be produced in a way that makes them marketable and competitive during an initial phase; on the other, there are enormous profits at stake – if an energy shift is to be accomplished on a global scale. Research on and development of biofuels is thus both “big science” and “big business”.

In Sweden, ethanol is at the top of the agenda, and powerful industrial and political forces are mobilized in order to implement ethanol as the alternative fuel, for example within the transport sector. Recently, this process has been spurred by the work of the Swedish Oil Commission (2006), where “green gold” is hailed as a solution to the problem of oil dependency and a strategy in the overall political reorganization towards sustainable development. So far the ethanol (E85, E75) that has been used in Swedish ethanol-driven vehicles, has mainly been produced from sugar cane and imported from Brazil. While the production of this fuel is relatively effective, its transportation is rather unsustainable. Furthermore, on 1 January 2006, a new customs system was implemented, making ethanol imported from outside the EU more expensive. The vision is, however, that domestic ethanol will be produced on a large scale, for example from biomass such as “energy plants” and “grot” (branches and tree-tops), something that many agriculture and forest companies advocate. Yet, one difficulty with this approach is that it will threaten biodiversity, cause environmental degradation and create land use conflicts, according to some biologists and environmentalists.

Another difficulty has to do with industrial production. To produce ethanol in a both cost-effective and environmentally responsible manner is still seen as a challenge. Therefore more research and development are said to be essential for the “second generation” of biofuel. Finally, critical cultural and environmental theorists also argue that the problem of fuels is an example of an “open dilemma”, that is, the solution to the oil problem will immediately create new environmental problems if the extensive car and transport system remains status quo (Thelander & Lundgren, 1989).

At Umeå University and the Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences, this state of affairs is taken seriously in many different ways. First, researchers in Energy Technology and Thermal Process Chemistry are eager to contribute to an increased knowledge of the critical thermo-chemical conversion processes, and to participate in the development of new scientific ideas and process concepts needed for the successful conversion from oil to national renewable resources. Secondly, plant researchers at the Umeå Plant Science Centre hope to produce genetically engineered trees, tailored to meet the demand for domestic raw materials. Thirdly, scholars at the Umeå School of Business are analysing the private economic dimension and conducting studies to identify the consumer’s present knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about biofuel. Furthermore, all these research initiatives – in science, technology and business – are linked to the biofuel industry (Svensk Etanolkemi AB) within the Mode 2-organization “BioFuel Region”. The purpose of this organization, a cluster that already includes a unique pilot plant in Örnsköldsvik, is to become a “global model for the shift towards a transport system based on biofuels made of cellulose” (www.biofuelregion.se).

As historians and experts on the relationships between environment, science, technology, society and media, we find this situation interesting, yet not unique. In fact, the “future fuels” of today rely on hundred-year-old chemical and biotechnological expectations of turning ordinary alcohol into a valuable replacement for oil (Sundin, 2005). However, this historical antecedent is not well known among scientists, politicians or businessmen. While the history of oil, the so-far “successful” fuel, its industrial concerns and problems have been studied and analysed in great detail all over the world (e.g. Parra, 2004; Roberts, 2005), a historical survey of the so-far “unsuccessful” biofuels and their industrial concerns and problems, hardly exists (although Sundin and Bernton et al. have compiled pilot studies). Historical knowledge about this “technological failure” is of the utmost importance for everyone who wishes to understand, manage and govern the biofuel enterprise into a future “success”.

Furthermore, technological innovations are often perceived as completely unprecedented, or as if their success or failure depends solely on scientific, technological or economic parameters. In the case of ethanol production, our hypothesis is that nothing could be more inappropriate. We acknowledge that major technological shifts tend to require much more than just new scientific and technological knowledge. As a matter of fact, phenomena such as power relations, cultural values, habits, gender structures, opinions, and political motives, and so forth are usually just as important.

From this perspective we propose a research programme, with the intention of exploring the historical, cultural and gendered dimensions of the “fuel of the future”. By doing so, we hope to contribute with critical reflection, including self-understanding, self-assessment, new perspectives and new types of questions (Lundgren, Nordlund & Storbjörk, 2002), that will inform the present biofuel endeavour in Sweden and elsewhere.

General Aim and Questions
Under the leadership of Christer Nordlund, this programme aims at illuminating how historically resonant discourses of potential benefits and uses, threats and fears, have formed an integral part of the efforts to establish ethanol as a “fuel of the future”. The focus will be placed on Sweden, though international comparative studies will also be undertaken. The overarching research question of the programme can be stated as follows: Why have biofuels such as ethanol – despite knowledge, available resources and the many “oil-crises” in the past (e.g. WW1, WW2, the Oil Crisis of the 1970s, the establishment of the increased green house effect in the 1980s) – never managed to replace oil as a fuel? The programme will accommodate three projects on ethanol development and debate (1) during the first half of the 20th century, carried out by a doctoral candidate in the history of science and ideas/environmental history/history, under the supervision of Bosse Sundin; (2) during the oil crises of the 1970s, carried out by Erland Mårald; and (3) as it is represented today in the work of BioFuel Region, carried out by Jenny Eklöf. Parallel to these projects, a media and communications study (4) of the representations of biofuels in Swedish mass media, carried out by Annika Egan Sjölander, will highlight the role of public images in the current history of ethanol in Sweden. Each project will have its own methodological and theoretical framework (see project specific descriptions below), but in order to render meaningful comparisons, each study will focus on three major themes: actors, arguments and settings.

1. Who are the principal actors (e.g. individuals, institutions, organizations, companies) and their agendas?
2. What sorts of arguments are put forward to convince or deter different publics of the uses of ethanol as a fuel?
3. In what sort of context-specific settings have the pros and cons of ethanol been formulated?

Furthermore, all projects will use gender as an analytical tool. An outline of the different projects within the programme, including notes on preliminary results, is presented below.

I. From Waste to Opportunity: Ethanol During the First Half of the 20th Century

In 1961, Swedish Parliament decided to raise the tax on motor alcohol to the same level as that of petrol. There was no opposition. In fact there had been no sale of ethanol as motor alcohol since 1956. This marked the end of the first period of ethanol as biofuel in Sweden. Ethanol in this case was the so-called sulphite alcohol. Fifty years earlier, expectations that ethanol would become a “fuel of the future” had been high, but there were also controversies due to regulatory legislation and competition from traditional alcohol producers (Sundin, 2005). In 1909, two Swedish engineers patented a method to ferment sulphite lye into alcohol – ethanol. During World War One, the import of petrol decreased, the number of plants producing sulphite alcohol grew, and an enterprise producing engines fuelled by sulphite alcohol was emerging. This came to an end after the war when the price of imported petrol made it difficult for sulphite alcohol to compete. Sulphite alcohol as motor fuel survived thanks to a tax reduction and obligations to blend petrol with sulphite alcohol. During and immediately after World War Two, emergency planning lent new importance to sulphite alcohol. But, as indicated above, in the 1950s interest declined (until the second phase began with the oil crisis of the 1970s).

This first period of ethanol as biofuel will be analysed mainly with analytical tools from the theory of socio-technical systems associated primarily with historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes. Hughes (1983; 1986; 1987) identifies the following phases in the history of evolving, or expanding, systems: invention, development, innovation, transfer, growth, competition and consolidation. Obviously, sulphite alcohol never reached the last phase, nor did it ever acquire momentum (another of Hughes’ key concepts). It could even be asked whether it ever evolved as a socio-technical system, even if it had all characteristics of a system by the end of the World War One, competing with another system: alcohol based on farm products produced by distilling plants. Another way is to see sulphite alcohol production as part of a larger socio-technical system, the forest and pulp industry. In Hughes’ theory, “reverse salients” are central to explaining the development of systems. The concept is a metaphor. “A salient reverse is a protrusion in a geometric figure, a line of battle, or an expanding weather front. As technological systems expand, reverse salients develop. Reverse salients are components in the system that have fallen behind or are out of phase with the others” (Hughes, 1987). Reverse salients can be defined as critical problems which, when solved, will expand the system. At the beginning of the 20th century, waste problems could be described as reverse salients in the forest and pulp industry. All early research efforts in the chemistry of wood had one aim in common: the utilization of waste material that the forest industry and pulp-manufacturing processes produced. To ferment sulphite lye into alcohol turned out to be one solution, research on carbonization techniques another. The ability to handle these technical problems was, however, not enough. This project will explore why.

II. Shock, Paradigm Shift and Practice: Ethanol During the Oil Crises of the 1970s

In October 1973, the OPEC states decreased their oil production at the same time as they drastically increased oil prices. An acute shortage of oil occurred and for a short period of time rationing of fuel was introduced in Sweden (Nydén, 1988). The Oil Crisis was a wake-up call for the whole Western world, especially for Sweden where oil comprised 72 % of the total energy supply. The Oil Crisis became a focusing event, which placed issues about energy supply, insecure global relationships of dependency and alternative solutions high on the agenda (Kingdon, 1995). The perplexing situation upset the prevailing power positions and ways of thinking. A window of opportunity for change emerged. As Vedung and Brandell (2001) have shown, Swedish energy policy underwent a “spectacular” change between 1972 and 1974 because of several paradigm shifts. However, this change did not include fuel for motor vehicles. Although the question of finding domestic substitutes for petrol was raised in two governmental inquires in 1974 (SOU 1974:64; SOU 1974:73), biofuel vehicles did not break into the market until the late 1990s. In spite of this, the Oil Crisis can be seen as a starting point for the current debate and research on the development of biofuel.

This environmental history project aims to investigate the actors in the 1970s who that took the initiative to conduct research and development of biofuels such as ethanol, methanol and hydrogen. The project will especially focus on the relationship between scientists, officials and representatives of industry. Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons (2001) claim that the Oil Crisis was a decisive event that increased insecurity in society, which forced science, government and industry to establish closer connections with each other. Moreover, during the 1970s there was an intense debate about environmental issues and “appropriate technology”. The criticism of economic growth and Western exploitation of natural resources in the Third world was fierce (Friman, 2002). As a consequence, new systems critical scientific perspectives were established, including human ecology and future studies, which focused on energy, transportation and politics (e.g. Lundgren, 1978; Lönnroth, 1978; Wittrock & Lindström, 1984; Kaijser et al., 1988). This project will examine whether the research and development of alternative fuel was mainly carried out within this critical discourse or by the dominant actors. Were there any exchanges of ideas and practises between these different groups? The project will be based on a wide range of different sources, such as newspaper articles, governmental inquiries, scientific studies and industrial reports. It is important to adopt a broad cultural perspective on this formative period in order to understand the present situation and the debate on biofuel. What choices have been made and how has this political and scientific field been elaborated? A close study of the 1970s will also elucidate the momentum, to use Hughes’ concept, which obstructed the development of biofuel vehicles and continues to do so today.

III. New Times, New Promises: Ethanol According to BioFuel Region

This project aims at looking into a contemporary effort to infuse biofuel implementation with new life, using Biofuel Region as an empirical case study. Biofuel Region (BFR), a non-profit organisation in combination with a company, was established in 2002 and brings together a diverse set of actors from the counties of Västernorrland and Västerbotten. Through regional co-operation this organisation hopes to become world-leading in the area of cellulose-based biofuels. A visionary goal is regional self-sufficiency in transport fuel by 2030. BFR sheds new light on the old understanding of innovation; BFR is simultaneously attempting to create a demand-pull by influencing and creating a market for biofuels, and a discovery-push by inviting the Umeå Plant Science Centre, among others, to provide scientific input. Knowledge is produced in the context of application, and there is an awareness of its social implications – two key features of what has been coined a Mode 2 phase of knowledge production (Gibbons et al., 1994). To create “socially robust” (Gibbons, 1999) solutions, BFR engages in public learning activities, e.g. through school projects and study groups (Signell, 2006), and market and selling strategies.

This project, which can be defined as a Science and Technology Study (STS), consists of three parts. Internal co-operation: BFR brings together a heterogeneous set of actors ranging from auto and forest industries, universities, governmental agencies, to municipalities and county councils. These actors are likely to have different interests, different understandings of what is at stake, and different areas of expertise. One interesting entrance to this is to study how negotiations and translations between different actors involve merging of interests and processes of identity building. This part of the project will be carried out as an interview study. External communication: Another tenet of this project is to analyse how BFR responds to and communicates with what is considered external actors and forces. This part will focus on how BFR interacts with what is, for them, relevant audiences (e.g. consumers, politicians and NGOs), by what means and with what sort of message, and also (in co-operation with Egan Sjölander) discuss the role of media representations of issues related directly or indirectly to BFR. BFR situated in a broader historical and political context: BFR does not exist in a societal vacuum, but is dependent on a broader political and historical context, both nationally and globally. The objective is to chart these external factors, to go beyond the more narrow focus that a case study inevitably implies, and connect it with the historical analyses conducted by the other programme participants.

IV. Between Fact and Fiction: The Contemporary Mass Media Discourse on Ethanol

From the 19th century to Rachel Carson in the 1960s and the debate on sustainability in the 1990s, the mass media, environmentalists, governments, and various power groups have interacted to affect social change (Neuzil & Kovarik, 1996; Nitsch, 2000). Mass media and opinion formation play a crucial role in today’s politics and marketing, and the energy field constitutes no exception (Sjölander, 2004). Mediated representations also influence citizen’s opinions and attitudes, especially concerning abstract phenomena and in areas where people have little personal experience. Climate change and radiation are two such examples (Beck, 1992; Bell, 1994). The supply and use of energy is fundamental in any society and affects the level of welfare among its citizens. Therefore, as history also reveals in the case of ethanol, its use is often subject to controversy. Different stakeholders try to give voice to their perspectives in the public sphere. Any large-scale introduction of an energy source is hard to imagine, as well as understand, without media input. In the case of ethanol, the change is partly undertaken by private consumers, motorists (mainly male, perhaps), who might only have access to information from the mass media in their decision-making process.

In this project the contemporary mass media discourse on ethanol is the main focus. The purpose is to critically review how ethanol as an energy source is represented in contemporary Swedish mass media, primarily the press. The ambition is to compare this with how ethanol has been understood, promoted and resisted earlier in history (findings from the other projects). The study is divided into two parts, one that focuses on the debate and news coverage in the national arena, and one that looks at the differences, as well as the interface, between local/regional and national media concerning mediated representations of ethanol/biofuel (the BioFuel Region case). The theoretical perspective to be employed in this project is discourse analytical, drawing on Michel Foucault’s (1993) theory of what constitutes and regulates discourses. Power dimensions and genealogical aspects of, for example, the “alternative” theme, are significant.

On Gender and Power
It is fairly obvious that topics such as fuel, cars, the motor vehicle industry and transportation systems are shaped by gender structures. According to feminist theories, these technologies have, in short, been components of a masculine culture, which embodies patriarchal values. The same may be said about the forest and agricultural sector, e.g. regarding its gender division of labour (Merchant, 1989). Furthermore, we may state that the “progress” of technological development, and preferences for different technologies, are shaped by social arrangements that reflect men’s power in society, from politics and business to private life (Wajcman, 1995; Berner, 2003). It is also common today to understand commercials and marketing strategies as well as mass media representations as gendered. In the present programme gender will prove suitable as an analytical tool in many different ways. On a more general level we are interested in the way “the alternative” has been constructed, established and challenged in relation to “the normal”. History provides us with examples of biofuel technologies that have been developed but have not flourished. Studying paths not taken can illuminate the way in which ideologies, for example of gender or capitalist profitability, shape technology.

At least since the early 1970s, efforts to develop biofuel have been labelled as “alternative” solutions, indicating that oil/petrol has been the “normal” and main path forward. Strong networks of actors have the power to decide what is seen as “rational” or not; other definitions of rationality are excluded in different ways. To become an actor in such a network, a person or an organisation has to have the “right” ideological, educational and professional background, and sometimes the “right” gender. However, during periods of crisis other ways of thinking, other values and new innovations (or old inventions) have an opportunity to make a breakthrough. All projects in the programme will investigate if/how ethanol has been defined as something irrelevant, irrational, or utopian. Moreover, the projects will examine how this “alternative” path eventually has become a serious and important solution to count with.
Latest update: 2018-06-20