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Finnish capital launches EUR 1 million Helsinki Energy Challenge

In Finland, the Mayor of Helsinki Jan Vapaavuori has launched the EUR 1 million Helsinki Energy Challenge. The quest for the challenge is simple – how to replace coal used in heat production with as much "carbon-neutrality" as possible. But there is a caveat. The City wants to look for new solutions to replace coal other than using biomass.

Dusk to dawn in downtown Helsinki.

In Finland, the Mayor of Helsinki Jan Vapaavuori has launched the EUR 1 million Helsinki Energy Challenge. The
quest for the challenge is simple – how to replace coal used in heat production with as much “carbon-neutrality” as
possible. But there is a caveat. The City wants to look for new solutions to replace coal other than using biomass.

The Finnish government has decided to place a ban on the burning of coal for energy production by 2029. The goal of the nation’s capital, Helsinki, is to be carbon-neutral by 2035. Approximately 56 percent of Helsinki’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions originate from the production of energy used for heating.

Currently, more than half of the district heating, which is the main method of heating in Helsinki, is produced with coal. In 2018, total district heating produced was 7 200 GWh of which 53 percent of it was produced with coal. In order to reach the carbon-neutrality goal, Helsinki needs to reduce the emissions originating from the production of heat, in addition to other actions.

Replace coal in heat production

Helsinki is located on the south coast of Finland, and the population of the city is concentrated in the coastal area. Due to the cold climate, heat demand is strongly correlated to weather, and the capacity needed to produce heat on cold winter days is substantial. The volume, variation, and the location of the heat demand mean that it has been challenging to find a replacement for fossil fuels.

The city-owned energy company Helen Oy is in charge of the production, distribution, and sale of district heating. Coal is used mainly in cogeneration of power and heat and in trigeneration, where power, heat, and cooling are produced in one process.

The coal-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plants are located in Hanasaari and Salmisaari, near the city centre, and there is also one coal-fired heat boiler in Salmisaari.

Helen has decided to shut down Hanasaari coal-fired CHP plant by 2024, and also the coal-fired units in Salmisaari need to be shut down or converted to other fuels by 2029. New sustainable solutions are needed to supply Helsinki’s heat demand.

Currently, different solutions to replace coal in heat production are being analyzed, and also energy efficiency improvements will decrease the need for heat. As the amount of coal to be replaced is large, the current indicative plan to replace it would result in a relatively high utilisation of biomass in heat generation.

The 420 MWth/220MWe Hanasaari coal-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant in downtown Helsinki power plant started to co-fire wood pellets at the end of 2015. Commissioned in 1974, the plant will be closed by the end of 2024 and the site repurposed as a residential/recreational area.

The 420 MWth/220MWe Hanasaari coal-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant in downtown Helsinki started to co-fire wood pellets at the end of 2015. Commissioned in 1974, the plant will be closed by the end of 2024 and the site repurposed as a residential/recreational area.

Helsinki Energy Challenge

However, Helsinki does not want to settle for what it says is the “most obvious solution” and replace the use of coal with biomass. According to the City, biomass is not a problem-free and sustainable energy source due to CO2 emissions, biodiversity issues and questions related to the availability and transport of biomass.

Indeed the City says that logistical challenges may be considerable, especially if biomass has to be transported into the city centre. Therefore, the City of Helsinki wants to look for new solutions to replace coal in heat production with other means than biomass.

In order to find answers for a “truly sustainable, long-term and holistic energy solution” for Helsinki, the Mayor of Helsinki Jan Vapaavuori has launched the global EUR 1 million Helsinki Energy Challenge. The quest for the challenge is simple – how to replace coal with “as much carbon-neutrality as possible and with as little biomass as possible.”

Climate change is the most crucial challenge of our time and Helsinki is one of the leading cities championing the fight against it. Helsinki Energy Challenge aims to find solutions for Helsinki but also more broadly for other cities around the world. Our partners will play a key role in achieving this goal. The C40 network collaborates with the Challenge already at the development phase. World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council is one of our partners in ensuring our success and the global relevance of the Challenge, said Mayor Jan Vapaavuori.

The competition is arranged to provide all parties with an equal opportunity to bring their solutions to the table for evaluation on the same terms. Helsinki Energy Challenge invites solutions and technology developers globally to propose their solutions. Helsinki Energy Challenge will be open globally for all – for companies, consortiums, research institutions, universities, and others.

Helsinki will also challenge other cities to join in and work to solve the question of emissions-free heating. In addition to solving Helsinki’s own challenge, the Helsinki Energy Challenge aims to find solutions with the potential to solve global decarbonisation targets outside Helsinki and Finland as well.

The preparation of the competition is underway. The planned duration of the competition is about one year. The competition’s start date and registration details will be published later. Helsinki encourages interdisciplinary and innovative discussions, challenging the most obvious solutions in energy production.

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