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Chinese wind farm investments stoke concerns in Sweden

by editor

STOCKHOLM — A political scrap is brewing in Sweden over a key ingredient in the country’s effort to shift away from fossil fuels: Chinese money. 

It’s all about the hundreds of millions of euros being plowed into Swedish wind farms by Chinese state-owned China General Nuclear Power Group, or CGN, with opposition lawmakers fearing the security consequences of allowing Beijing a foothold in Sweden’s future energy production. 

Through questions in parliament and a steady drumbeat of statements to the media over the past year, members of the center-right Moderate Party and the far-right Sweden Democrats — the two largest opposition parties — have been pushing back against the sell-off to CGN.

The Chinese company owns stakes in six Swedish wind power projects, including 75 percent of Markbygden Ett, the first phase of the wider Markbygden scheme in northern Sweden, which is set to be Europe’s biggest onshore wind farm when completed. 

“When it comes to electricity production, increasing ownership by foreign countries is not by definition a problem, but it could be, especially when we are talking about countries like China,” said Lars Hjälmered, energy spokesperson for the Moderates. 

The Sweden Democrats’ energy spokesperson Mattias Bäckström Johansson called his country’s attitude to Chinese investment in a range of sectors, including electricity production, “naive.” 

In Sweden, power production has become a hot-button issue ahead of next year’s election, with clashes over plans for wind and nuclear power production already commonplace as the government navigates an ambitious shift to fully renewable electricity sources by 2040.

The country of 10 million expects demand for green electricity to double by 2045 as industries from steel to mining to transport phase out fossil fuels. 

The spat over CGN’s role adds to Stockholm’s already fractious relations with Beijing, and analysts at the state-run Swedish Defense Research Agency, known as FOI, have warned about the risks posed by China’s increasing involvement in wind power.

“If China’s share of Swedish electricity production increases, the country could use its influence to put pressure on Sweden,” Oscar Almen, a China specialist at FOI, told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter earlier this month. 

As well as a way to apply political pressure in the future, observers say China could also use any intelligence gained through CGN about customers — individuals, companies, and public entities — to support its political aims, which have increasingly been at odds with those of Western nations.

For example, a 2017 Chinese national security law obliges Chinese companies to support Beijing’s intelligence-gathering efforts. 

CGN did not respond to a request to comment on the concerns raised about its investments.

Chinese power play

As part of Beijing’s “Made in China” strategy launched in 2015, Chinese enterprises have sought to take leading roles in higher-tech sectors — including clean energy — and state backing has given the likes of CGN financial muscle. 

At the same time, Sweden was ramping up its wind power capacity and the Asian cash injection was helpful. 

CGN bought its stake in Markbygden Ett in 2018 and its owners have together invested around 7.8 billion kronor (€770 million) in the project so far, according to a report by industry group the Swedish Wind Energy Association. 

But now, with Sweden’s wind power industry partially up and running, authorities are questioning how much more of the emerging sector China should control. 

Similar questions are likely to face other European nations as they design and execute transitions to low-carbon power production, especially where they focus on sources like wind and nuclear where Chinese companies are strong. 

CGN also owns stakes in wind power projects in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, according to its website.

In the U.K., the company also owns stakes in both the Sizewell and Hinkley nuclear plants, something media reports have suggested the government in London has grown increasingly worried about. 

The U.S. blacklisted CGN in 2019 amid accusations — which the company denies — that it sought to steal technology that could have a military use.

A troubled history

In Sweden, the bubbling concern over CGN and wind power comes in the wake of a wider backlash against a perceived increase in Chinese commercial and political influence.

A number of Swedish industrial towns — including Gothenburg, home of Chinese-owned Volvo Cars — have stepped back from joint projects with Chinese cities amid concerns over Beijing’s human rights record.  

Stockholm also banned China’s Huawei from building Sweden’s 5G internet after judging the telecoms company could be used by Beijing to spy on Swedish targets. 

In a parliamentary question earlier this month, Moderate lawmaker Lars Beckman asked how the Swedish government planned to handle the “security consequences of the Chinese state making such significant investments in Swedish wind power development.” 

Energy Minister Anders Ygeman said the government was “aware of the problems which can arise with certain foreign purchases of sensitive infrastructure and sensitive technology” and noted that the government had previously said that China’s growing global influence created “both opportunities and challenges.” 

In a proposal submitted in May, the government suggested tightening the rules for foreign purchases of Swedish assets — as well as for cooperation between Swedish and foreign companies — if there were national security concerns, Ygeman said. 

The proposal would require companies to consult Swedish supervisory agencies more often before agreeing on contracts with foreign counterparties. 

The Moderate Party’s Hjälmered said he backed more screening of deals involving foreign buyers.

“Sweden is in favor of free trade, but at certain points we need to be able to say that some types of investment shouldn’t happen for security reasons,” he said. 

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