Sustainable City of the Month: Skellefteå
By Signe Hansen | Photos: Visit Skellefteå
Wooden buildings, pine forests and a giga factory – how a Swedish town is combining local traditions and modern technology in the name of sustainability. With a 75-metre-tall wooden building towering above its town centre, one of Europe’s largest battery factories located in its suburbs and 480,000 hectares of forest encircling it, the Swedish town of Skellefteå is saturated by sustainable visions from the inside out.
In November 2021, Skellefteå’s new industrial neighbourhood, Site East, was nominated for the Sweden Green Building Award , and it is not the first time the northern town has been noticed for its focus on sustainability and technology. In fact, when visiting, the previous Swedish Minister of Civil Affairs described Skellefteå as the place to visit “to understand how the world should change to a climate-smart way of life”.
According to Karin Degerfeldt of Skellefteå Municipality, the development is largely down to two things – the expertise developed by Skellefteå’s business community and the county’s abundant natural resources. “The forests of Västerbotten have created jobs in forestry and given us important exports of high-quality wood products; our waterways have given us renewable energy. Good natural resources and the strong business community that developed the expertise of the municipality are the basis for Skellefteå’s sustainable development,” she says.
When visiting Skellefteå, the town’s green credentials are easy to spot – or rather, hard to miss. Flying into the region, visitors traverse the vast pine and spruce forests encircling the town and in Skellefteå airport, one of the world’s first fossil-free airports, a wooden air traffic control tower presents evidence of the town’s fondness for constructing in wood. Less obvious to the eye is the fact that the town is powered by an energy system that provides 100 per cent renewable energy from hydropower and wind. Moreover, 65 of the town’s 120 busses run on HVO and 40 on biogas from the town’s local biogas plant.
A miraculous ecotown
In the heart of the town, the 75-metre-tall Sara Cultural Centre has become a symbol of Skellefteå’s dedication to sustainable and renewable development. Opened in the autumn of 2021, the 20-storey building is constructed in wood from the surrounding forests and includes a theatre, gallery, library, museum and the Wood Hotel. As one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world, it has attracted attention far beyond Sweden’s borders. At its opening, the UK’s The Guardian enthusiastically dubbed Skellefteå “a miraculous ecotown”, and the centre and hotel “beacons of what it is possible to do with timber.”
The enthusiasm is partly due to the fact that, reflecting Skellefteå’s long traditions of building in wood, the Sara Cultural Centre is realised with timber as a structural material, not just a surface layer. Consequently, the wood used in the construction has sequestered around 9,000 tonnes of carbon, more than twice the carbon emissions caused by operational energy and embodied carbon from the production of materials, transport and construction. Combined with a ground-breaking energy system developed by the local power company Skellefteå Kraft and solar panels on the roof, the design means that, over a period of 50 years, the building will be carbon negative (the building is expected to have a minimum lifespan of 100 years).
Home to one of Europe’s largest battery factories
But it is not just the town centre of Skellefteå that is formed by sustainable visions. In the town’s award-nominated industrial neighbourhood, Site East, the newly opened Northvolt battery factory adds another layer to the tale. Based on local raw materials and renewable energy, the factory aims to not only produce but also recycle batteries to make “the world’s greenest battery”. In November, the factory’s lab successfully completed the first battery cell with 100 per cent recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt.
Emma Nehrenheim, Northvolt’s chief environmental officer, says: “The recycling process can recover up to 95 per cent of the metals in a battery to a level of purity on a par with fresh virgin material. What we need now is to scale-up recycling capacities in anticipation of future volumes of batteries requiring recycling.”
With an annual production capacity of 60 GWh (gigawatt hours, half of which will be recycled) and at the size of 71 football pitches, the gigafactory is one of Europe’s largest.
The factory becomes part of the town’s growing cleantech industry which also includes the Green Flight Academy, a flight academy where the majority of training is carried out in electric aircrafts. But it is not all about brand new technologies, some of the town’s cleantech facilities have been around for decades. One of them is the Boliden’s Rönnskär smelter, which opened in 1960. Today, the smelter recycles around 120,000 tonnes of electronic material from most of Europe. During the process, the melting of plastic materials generates steam that is converted into electricity or district heating for the plant and local area.
Together with ambitious plans from the municipality, the cleantech industry has helped cement Skellefteå’s sustainable profile. “We’ve made sustainability a natural part of everything built in the municipality, no matter who’s building it. To achieve the goal of a sustainable society, a holistic view of urban planning is required in which resource management, good architecture and technical innovation are essential parts,” says Degerfeldt. “Skellefteå inhabitants planning to build anything must also build for a sustainable Skellefteå.”
A green destination
Clearly, Skellefteå offers rich opportunities for people within the cleantech sectors to find inspiration for a “climate-smart way of life”. But regular visitors may also enjoy exploring the town’s sustainable features. Tracks in the surrounding Boreal Forest are ideal for bicycle rides during summer, and during winter, visitors will be able to silently track moose on Swedish Lapland’s first electric snowmobiles (due to arrive in the winter of 2022). “Actually, it is almost impossible not to take part in a sustainable lifestyle when visiting,” says Bo Wikström from Visit Skellefteå.
“Our foundation is an abundance of unexploited nature and vast forests around the corner, clean air and water, and our large assets of green energy. All this has influenced and helped our development, making it possible to arrive in one of the world’s first fossil-free airports and continue by fossil free transfer to one of the world’s tallest hotels built in timber, with a zero-carbon footprint. Regardless of the wishes of our visitors, our ambition is to share our Arctic lifestyle, doing good for the planet.”
Consequently, many local tourism initiatives are developed in partnership with Visit Skellefteå and guided by the GSTC criteria (based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and developed by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, the criteria serve as global standards for sustainability). “We believe that working together is the key to reaching the UN development goals and making destinations more sustainable. It’s an important tool to help us in this process and it is a way to improve our agenda and strategy for sustainability, making it the top priority in everything we do,” says Wikström, and rounds off: “Now, we are part of a global movement to make our destinations more attractive, resilient and regenerative”
Facts: Size: At 7,174 kilometres, Skellefteå is Sweden's largest coastal municipality in terms of area. Population: Just over 72,000 inhabitants live in the municipality. Location: Skellefteå is located in the county of Västerbotten in Northern Sweden, approximately 800 kilometres north of Stockholm and 250 kilometres from the border of Finland. The municipality is home to the new 60 GWh Northvolt battery factory, the Green Flight Academy, Skellefteå Kraft (which provides the town with the 100 per cent renewable energy), the Boliden's Rönnskär smelter (which recycles around 120,000 tonnes of electronic material yearly) and the Sara Cultural Centre, one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings. The municipality operates 120 busses, 65 run on HVO, 40 on biogas from the town’s local biogas plant, and six are electric. The town’s renewable energy sources are controlled by an intelligent energy network that ensures energy is directed or stored according to demand. In 2021, Visit Skellefteå joined the Global Destination Sustainability Movement (GDSM), a global platform that helps destinations identify strengths and weaknesses. Check winner 30 Nov. Web: www.visitskelleftea.se
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