Carbon neutral island Gotland: situation and perspectives

Background, current situation, and potential for a fossil-free Gotland

The energy system in Gotland is connected via a sea cable to Vattenfall’s regional grid in Southeast Sweden. In 2009 a feasibility study started on the prospects to establish a third cable between the mainland and Gotland. From the actors on the island region, the cable was (and is still today to a certain degree) perceived as crucial for the future of Gotland. A cable would enable wind energy export to the national grid and secure private and public activities as it could possibly mean lower risks for power cuts. In 2017 it was decided that it would not be a third cable. (ABB, 2019)

The same year, the Swedish government appointed the Swedish National Energy Agency to conduct a study on how to enable Gotland to be a pilot for the Swedish energy transition. In June 2018 followed by the appointment to produce a roadmap for the Energy transition on Gotland, it was decided that Gotland should become a Swedish role model.

The focus on Gotland as a Swedish role model for fossil-free energy is not the first step for the island regarding fossil-free energy. One of the first windmills in Sweden was established on Näsudden on Gotland, and investigations on large scale establishments of windmills were done already in 1982 (Bersjö, Nilsson and Skärbäck, 1982). District heating has been established since the 1970s, and most of the houses outside the district heating network use wood chips, wood pellets or electrical heat pumps for heating. This means that almost no oil is not used for heating on the island. The latest figures from the County Administrative Board from 2015 show that 36 percent of 4760 GWh in Gotland is fossil-free, and around 50 % of the electricity is from wind power. The respondent from the Region Gotland state that approximately one-third of the electricity is used by Cementa, one third by the households and businesses in urban areas and one third by households and businesses in rural areas.

The initiatives for a fossil-free island are numerous

The work towards a fossil-free island is both driven by the heavy industry on the island, and within other parts of the island geography; small and medium-sized enterprises, the region, the county administrative board, the university and in communities around the island. Cementa with the limestone industry has a desire to change its energy into fossil-free alternatives (currently 20-30 % of the energy is fossil-free) and to ensure that its industrial process is carbon neutral. To enable that carbon capture storage is perceived as needed. The limestone bedrock does, however, complicates the possibilities to store the carbon on or around Gotland, which means that they are doing investigations for carbon storage in Norway instead. This despite investigations that show that the Baltic south of Gotland consists of suitable bedrock ground for carbon-storing, no such infrastructure is currently available (SGU, 2019).

Biogas for heating and fuel have been up and running for a decade, it is a growing regional industry although already 100 million SEK has been invested. Waste from households and farms as well as forest materials is used in the production. The biogas is consumed as energy, the waste as fertilizers on fields, and when upgraded to fuel the gas is used for busses in the public transport system, as well as private cars and trucks. The economic potential is large, the circularity between the urban and rural areas proves the environmental gains, and as the biogas is strengthening the self-esteem among the farmers and forest owners on Gotland it also has important social implications.

The respondents interviewed for this study state that technically it is possible to change Gotland into a fossil-free energy system, it is the social reality that is the tricky part. There are huge costs, and it is not really a willingness for such investments without assurance that other regions also will invest in the same type of infrastructure. To get the right permits and to ensure participation in the process takes time. One of the respondent’s said that at the start of the pilot process in 2017 the National Energy Agency did not really think about the social side of the energy transition, but now they have started to realize that local context and participation must be the highest priority for the change to happen. The focus of the island is on changing the production and consumption of energy, but also on promoting environmentally friendly ways of transport on the island, to integrate energy in the spatial planning and to enable businesses and households to change their energy sources by matchmaking activities.

“The most fun and the most important is communication with persons in the local communities. To get the public involved in the work. It feels good to contribute to that.  The biggest changes are what is done by big companies like Vattenfall and Cementa, but it is crucial to involve the inhabitants. If that work is not done the transition will stop.” (Researcher at Campus Gotland, September 2019).


When asked about the effects of the transition to a fossil-free Gotland the respondents mentioned environmental effects, social effects, and economic effects.

Environmental effects

The transition has positive environmental effects such as decreased climate emissions at the regional level. It is, however, not necessarily shown in the statistics as fewer emissions, but rather as changes between different types of energy used and decrease in electricity from the grid when inhabitants change the use into wind power and solar panels. There are also potentially negative environmental effects of a transition to a fossil-free energy system. For instance, the establishment of windmills increases the risks for the death of birds, on Gotland especially the white-tailed eagle and the golden eagle are at risk to collide with windmills. On the other hand, the number of windmills and the number of successfully nesting eagles have had very positive covariation in the last decades om Gotland.  At the moment there is an ongoing project with a sound system to prevent birds to collide with the windmills at Näs. The sounds seem to prevent the birds from colliding, but that does not take away the fact that new windmills change the habitats for the animals.

Social effects

The positive social effects of the transition to a fossil-free energy system are several on Gotland.

To increase the regionally produced energy and through that decrease, the import of energy is mentioned as a priority for the military positioned at the island. Self-sufficiency of energy is positive for preparedness in case of crisis. A new international bachelor program for energy has started, which increases the local knowledge about and for the transition at the island.  The changes in the ways of transport, both private and public transport systems have positive health benefits; both in terms of better air quality from less pollution from fuels and improved exercise when people walk and bike more. Overall the awareness of the energy that is used has, according to the interviews, increased at the island and to form local energy communities are starting to become trendy. To work together towards the goals of self-sufficiency in a community increase the feeling of belonging and strengthen the spirit of the community. In Swedish that is called sockenanda. One example of such local energy communities on Gotland is the Östergarns landet (Austerland Energi, 2019).

Economic effects

The economic effects that are mentioned for Gotland are primarily positive. The costs might not decrease due to a fossil-free transition, but the economic transition to a larger degree stays within the island and the community.  Local energy production provides and secures work opportunities and that have positive effects on the regional economy.

The Swedish national and European public support for actors to invest in energy transition (i.e. Klimatklivet, and European rural development program funds, etc.) is described as positive for the island economy. These positive aspects are twofold, both the direct financial flows to the island and the increased competitiveness for the businesses as a result of decreased costs for energy consumption and decreased climate impacts.

Innovations that are developing now on Gotland are new ways of enable for decentralized energy systems, to build up business models that meet the trends of communities, households, and businesses being both consumers and producers of energy (Austerland Energi, 2019).

Challenges to solve

Two changes in Swedish laws and regulations were also mentioned as challenges to overcome to ease the process for a fossil-free island region. First, there is a need to investigate the limit of how heavy trucks can be loaded with industrial materials. To increase the loading limits would decrease the transports. Some transport businesses on the island state that this can be done without destroying the roads. Second, the law that regulates sales of electricity is stated to challenge local energy communities (Ellag 1997:857). At the moment it is perceived as not possible to get together and invest in, for instance, solar panels and sell the electricity to the neighbour.

The electricity grid is also mentioned as a challenge that hinders the regional growth, as well as the lack of a cable that would enable the export of energy from the island.

“There is potential. What is needed is engagement, political decisions, and budget.” (An official at County administrative board, Gotland, September 2019).

Possibilities ahead

The continued work seems to consist of creating good public-private constellations regarding investments, to bring in energy into the spatial planning process to solve issues of land for storage and new smart energy installations in a broad political forum, and to perceive the Swedish military interests on the island as an opportunity to increase the focus on a self-sufficient energy system.

To further focus on the seasonality, and especially the large flows of second home users and tourists during the summer months of the year is also a possibility ahead. These flows of people enable both new ideas for solutions and to spread innovations beyond the geography of the island.