Court case casts shadow on Swedish cement supply

The future of the strategically important Cementa quarrying and cement production site off the east coast of Sweden is in question after a ruling by a national environmental court
November 8, 2021
By Liam McLoughlin
Swedish construction firms claim that shutting down the Cementa site could stop major construction projects in the country
Swedish construction firms claim that shutting down the Cementa site could stop major construction projects in the country

A legal decision delivered this summer is providing a potential threat to the future of a quarrying site that produces three-quarters of Sweden’s cement.

At the centre of the case are the limestone quarries at Slite on the island of Gotland operated by Cementa, the Swedish subsidiary of HeidelbergCement. The quarries supply Cementa’s integrated cement plant on the island.

On July 6 Sweden’s Land and the Environmental Court of Appeal rejected Cementa’s permission-renewal to continue and expand its limestone quarry activities at the Slite site due to concerns about its environmental impact. If enforced, the decision would mean an end to quarrying at the site from the start of November.

Cementa CEO Magnus Ohlsson said that implementation would mean the national cement supply ends up in a “crisis situation”. He added: “For Sweden, our customers and for us and our employees, it is important that political decision-makers and authorities urgently draw up new guidelines for how the supply of critical building materials such as cement and concrete should work in Sweden.”

Byggföretagen, a Swedish association representing construction firms, warned that the decision could mean a halt to major construction projects, with between 200,000 and 400,000 job losses and the country’s GDP growth being wiped out.

It added: “In November, three out of four new homes will not be able to start construction. Several major infrastructure projects are stopped or delayed.”

The association estimates that the loss of investment will be equivalent to over SEK20bn (€1.97bn) per month.

On August 25 the Land and Environmental Court of Appeal refused to allow Cementa to appeal the decision to reject its application for continuation of quarrying at Slite.

“It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court does not grant leave to appeal, but we have also been prepared for this outcome,” said Karin Comstedt Webb, head of sustainability at Cementa. “The announcement does not affect our ongoing work, but we continue to work with other initiatives that we began immediately when we received the Land and Environmental Court’s ruling in July.”

These initiatives include both an application for a shorter permit for limestone quarrying that could be quicker to get in place, plus an application for a long-term permit. Comstedt Webb says that such a permit is a prerequisite for the site’s continued operation over time and for ensuring a secure and sustainable cement supply in Sweden, with a view to being able to deliver climate-neutral cement in 2030.

In parallel with preparations for applications, she said that work is being done to put in place short-term solutions for the supply of raw materials to the factory and thereby reduce the consequences of any cement shortage in Sweden.

Comstedt Webb said of the August 25 ruling: “Even if today’s message does not affect the work ahead for us in substance, it is worrying because it leaves a number of questions of principle unanswered about how the case has been handled legally. This creates uncertainty in the entire system regarding the efficiency of permit processes in Sweden.”

Cementa has operated at the Slite site for over 100 years
Cementa has operated at the Slite site for over 100 years

Due to the strategic importance of Slite the Swedish government has become involved in the case, and has suggested changes to make it possible to continue limestone quarrying at the site. If passed by the Swedish national assembly Riksdag they would allow the company to continue production at Slite for another eight months until the summer of 2022. The government is hoping to implement the proposals by October 15.

In light of the government proposals Cementa has submitted its application for an emergency permit for limestone quarrying in Slite. The company says the permit aims to, as far as possible, secure the maintenance of the cement supply in Sweden for the next three years.

There is a certain irony to the case as the Slite site is a high-profile example of the Swedish cement sector’s efforts to drastically cut CO2 emissions. Just a month before the July court decision, Cementa announced its intention to develop the world’s first carbon-neutral cement plant in Slite.

The manufacturer commented: “When the installation is commissioned in 2030 and begins capturing up to 1.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, of which an increasing proportion is bio-based emissions, the plant that currently accounts for 3% of Sweden’s total emissions can even become a carbon sink.”

Cementa says that the low-carbon cement project in Norway operated by its parent company HeidelbergCement, has acted as a stimulus for the plans for a carbon-neutral plant in Slite.

After the Norwegian government confirmed its commitment to carbon capture and storage (CCS) in winter 2020/21, HeidelbergCement has started work on building the world’s first full-scale installation for carbon capture in Brevik. This will capture 400,000 tonnes annually, which corresponds to 50% of the plant’s emissions. At the same time, capacity is being built up to geologically store carbon dioxide from other industries as well. Cementa says that planning for the plant on Gotland has benefitted significantly from the establishment of the facility at Norcem in Brevik, which is now well under way.  

“Our strong goal of establishing a CCS installation in Slite means that Sweden has a chance to become a world leader in carbon-neutral cement production,” said Giv Brantenberg, general manager of HeidelbergCement Northern Europe. “Based on our positive experience of collaboration with the Norwegian government and their decision to invest in this technology, we have now chosen to ramp up our ambitions for a carbon-capture installation in Sweden that is four times larger.”

Cementa says that a feasibility study has been launched to define all critical steps towards establishing the plant. It will look into issues related to technology choices, environmental impact, legal issues, financing, logistics and energy supply. “As electricity demands are going to increase by up to five times compared to today, the venture will require significant upgrades of the power grid leading to and on Gotland,” it added in a statement. “An effective regulatory framework for CCS and, not least, commercial driving forces are also needed in order to see this venture to fruition.”

Authorisation processes and the construction period are estimated to take just under ten years.

Cementa adds that the installation in Slite will be scaled to capture up to 1.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, which essentially means the entirety of the emissions. The use of bio-based fuels is set to increase and, as these are counted as carbon-neutral, the company adds that net emissions will fall below zero and ‘negative emissions’ will be achieved.

Quarries get closer to construction sites

The aggregates sector across the Nordic region is seeing an increasing trend for quarries to be located close to construction sites to minimise the costs, traffic and emissions involved in transporting material.

Per Leis, business manager for Sweden and the Baltics within the Volvo CE Europe region, says that in these instances customers will typically have a team of excavators, wheeled loaders and mobile crushers that they move around to the various quarry sites.

“So these quarry operators want heavy machines but not necessarily the biggest ones,” says Leis, who adds that VolvoCE’s L220H and L260H models are the most popular wheeled loaders for these customers, while its EC380E and EC480E are the most popular excavators.

Nordic countries are spending a lot on road and rail infrastructure to connect remote areas and shorten travel times – and there are many major projects such as the Botniabanan high-speed railway line in northern Sweden.

Due to changes in purchasing behaviour, there are also many logistics hubs being built where goods arrive from across Europe to be redistributed. In addition, the energy transition is seeing new battery factories built in Sweden and wind farms in Norway. Leis says that all of these projects need road and rail infrastructure to support them.

Lars-Erik Sletner, head of politics and society at Norway’s mineral, mining and quarrying association Norsk Bergindustri, says there are many large infrastructure projects under planning and construction in the various counties across Norway.

“Large road projects dominate and in the coming years this will contribute to increased demand [for quarry products],” Sletner adds.

Leis says that his company’s quarry customers in the Nordic region are keen to utilise the latest technology. “The machines are well-equipped with [Volvo CE] solutions, such as Co-Pilot with Dig Assist or Load Assist to increase productivity, efficiency and safety,” he says.

Service-wise, he adds that Nordic customers are asking for cohesive solutions to boost productivity and reduce CO2 emissions, so his company is providing tailored programmes and bundling services together to help them achieve those goals.

“This might be a combination of digital services such as Efficient Load Out, training services such as EcoOperator Training or consultancy services such as Site Simulation,” he says. “With each programme, we go through a four-step process of insight, analyse, improve and sustain.”

Volvo is also at the forefront of electric autonomous quarrying solutions in the Nordic region and has set up the Volvo Autonomous Solutions (VAS) business unit to develop these. It tested the concept in a 2018 trial at the Vikan Kross quarry near Gothenburg with its customer Skanska.

Following this trial, it has now developed the TARA autonomous transport solution featuring the TA15 electric autonomous hauler. VAS has completed a pilot for the TARA system with Harsco Environmental in Hofors, Sweden, and Volvo says it plans to make the TARA/TA15 offering commercially available with the first small-scale customer implementation in Europe by the end of 2021.

Leis says that aggregates demand across the Nordic region is mostly related to road construction projects with the quarries being located close to the jobsite. “These kinds of projects often involve blasting anyway so it makes sense to use the material, such as from a tunnel, on the project with mobile crushers,” he adds.

In terms of the major opportunities for Volvo’s quarrying and aggregates business in the Nordic countries, Leis says the company has strong dealers in the region and a great opportunity to offer equipment and vehicles from Volvo Trucks for long-haul transport, from Volvo CE for transport within the quarry and from Volvo Penta for crusher motors and generators, all with financing from the group’s financial services division, as one package.  “The result is a one-stop shop for service and finance,” he adds. “It’s easy and convenient for the customer. There are no disturbances and loss of money is avoided.”

Many Nordic quarry operators have a team of excavators, loaders and mobile crushers that they move around to their various quarry sites
Many Nordic quarry operators have a team of excavators, loaders and mobile crushers that they move around to their various quarry sites

He says that the quarrying and aggregates sector in the region has not been hugely impacted by COVID-19. “Many quarries in Sweden remained in operation and infrastructure projects continued. Demand has been high.”

Sletner says that Norway’s aggregates sector has emerged from the pandemic fairly well. “There have certainly been some delays in progress, but this is often due to government-based measures like travel restrictions,” he adds.

He adds that the industry in Norway has a focus on zero-emission solutions and recycling. “These are requirements that will be strengthened by the Norwegian authorities in the years to come, ” says Sletner. “Furthermore, the industry wants co-operation with the authorities on this key issue - important with the right incentive schemes, so that the restructuring is feasible.”

Looking ahead to the major upcoming developments in the Nordic region over the next 18 months, Leis says there is definitely more awareness from customers about looking into waste within their own operations. He adds that many customers are realising that they can make a lot of improvements within their own operations to avoid idling time and move material from one location to another in a more efficient way.

“So we increasingly see a trend of customers wanting to monitor their production (tonnes per hour), fuel efficiency (tonnes per litre of fuel) and CO2 emissions in real time from the office,” he adds.

Sletner says that in Norway there is an increasing focus on zero-emission solutions and cooperation with the authorities to find good solutions, such as the right incentive schemes.

The heavy emphasis on zero/low emissions in the materials sector extends across the Nordic region. In September, Finnish material-technology company Betolar and Danish concrete manufacturer IBF announced a partnership to launch low-carbon concrete products.

The partnership supports IBF’s goal to transition to a significantly lower carbon footprint with their products, intended to be launched to market next year. This is aligned with the Danish concrete industry’s aim to halve the CO2 emissions by 2030.

Janne Rauramo, head of European markets at Betolar, said: “IBF is the largest concrete manufacturer in the Danish market, and with this collaboration we aim to support the company and wider industry’s sustainability goals.”

Betolar and IBF have conducted an industrial pilot programme to ensure the strength and durability of the concrete products. Under the pilot, the product groups included are pavers and roof tiles, which the pair say are both in high demand. The Geoprime solution also applies to other dry-cast products such as pipes and infrastructure products.

The companies say that production of the low-carbon products is planned to start soon with Denmark as the primary market.

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