HRM goes to Sweden:  Who will learn what from whom?

From Chronicle-Herald 3 October 2009
AUTHOR: Larry Hughes

About a month ago, it was announced that a delegation of Halifax Regional Municipality officials, business people, and representatives from Dalhousie University will travel to Sweden on a fact-finding trip covering energy, house building, and public transit (Chronicle Herald, 29 August). When asked about the trip to Sweden, Mayor Kelly said, “We’ll be learning from them and they’ll be learning from us”.

To be honest, I doubt whether there’s much the HRM delegates can learn from the Swedes. But let me tell you, the HRM delegation can’t get over here soon enough—these people need to be set straight on a few things with a good dose of HRM common sense and vision.

It’s hard to believe, but about half the homes and buildings in Sweden are heated from community central heating plants, many generating both hot water and electricity. These district heating systems, as they are called, pump the hot water through the community in insulated, underground pipes. The energy sources for systems range from municipal waste to biomass from Swedish forests.

The Swedes need to learn that district heating makes no sense—HRM has demonstrated this on a number of occasions, the most recent being the decision to opt for natural gas rather than district heating on the peninsula. HRM’s decision should be obvious—Nova Scotia’s natural gas supply will last for, well, a few years, whereas Sweden’s managed forests can’t possibly last for that long.

And the Swedes mania for energy efficiency can only be described as yucky. They actually use heat pumps to extract heat from their sewage plants’ discharge water! Crazy, simply crazy—it makes no sense to go to the expense of treating sewage and removing the remaining heat when you can dump it straight into a body of water like the Bedford Basin.

House building
There are so many things the Swedes could learn from HRM (and Nova Scotia for that matter), and house building is definitely one of them. They actually require triple glazing and at least R-30 insulation in the walls of new houses—with energy so cheap and no possibility of energy shortages in the future, single glazing and 2-by-4s are the key to successful house building.

There are so many things that need a good dose of HRM. The Swedes actually have four-and-five story, low-rise residential buildings, often built around a green area, in the downtown core of many cities. This makes no sense. Without high-rises of 20 and 30 stories, the Swedish approach to urban density will never make cities “livable”.

The Swedes need to learn the value of tearing down old buildings and putting up new ones. In Uppsala where we’re living right now, they have a height restriction on buildings to ensure that the centerpiece of the town, a gothic cathedral, is visible from almost anywhere in the city. If they got rid of the height restriction, the cathedral could be surrounded by high-rises that would block the view except for those living closest to it. The high-rises could be sold as ”cathedral view“.
But why waste valuable space on a dumpy, old cathedral. Tear it down and leave it as a car park with plans to one day build another high-rise.

Public transit
These people actually encourage the use of bicycles to the point where there is adequate space for pedestrians, bicycles, and motorized traffic. This is crazy—I’m sure that the HRM delegation can impress upon the Swedes that roads need to be as wide as possible to accommodate as many cars as possible.
And the problems with bicycles don’t end there. Outside my office there is a parking lot for almost 1,000 bicycles. These Swedes need to understand that the spaces for those bicycles could be used as parking space for, say, 30 automobiles. When will these people ever learn?

Don’t get me started on the public transportation. The local transportation system here uses buses that are clean, modern, and actually run on biofuel. The Swedes clearly fail to understand the benefits of operating ageing, overcrowded buses that have fading stickers reminding people of a less-than-successful biodiesel program—it discourages riders!

Perhaps the most regressive policy deals with the sale of bus tickets—single tickets can be purchased from vending machines and convenience stores, while weekly, monthly, seasonal, and yearly passes are also available. But it doesn’t stop there—if you don’t have a ticket or enough change for a fare, you can use your cell phone to text for a ticket—the ticket appears on your phone’s screen which you then shown to the driver. This is lunacy—you’d think that the Swedes actually want to encourage the use of public transit.

Sweden also has regional buses and trains that run to communities outside the major centres. This needs a good dose of Nova Scotian transportation vision—offer little choice to the public other than the private automobile.

You know, in retrospect, maybe there’s not all that much that the Swedes can learn from the HRM delegation about energy, housing, and public transportation.
On the other hand, maybe the Swedes would like to know more about cat bylaws.

Larry Hughes is a visiting professor with the Global Energy Systems research group at Uppsala University in Uppsala Sweden.  He is not a member of the HRM delegation.