Helsinki’s daring bid to rethink the future of urban heating

Transforming Jätkäsaari harbour
Yiping Feng and Ling Ouyang

Despite having a population of just 5.4 million, the Nordic nation now boasts 10 per cent of the world’s startup exits, with the Finnish capital Helsinki at the epicentre of these flourishing ecosystems. There are 500 startups in Helsinki alone, in industries ranging from gaming to clean tech, fintech, ITC and food services, many of which have attracted substantial interest from foreign venture capitalists. In 2018, foreign investments in Finnish startups exceeded £200 million.So when Jan Vapaavuori became Helsinki’s first elected mayor in June 2017, it was only natural for him to look to harness the city’s culture of innovation and technical expertise to position Helsinki as a global leader among cities in paving the way for a post-carbon economy.
At the time, Helsinki had already made impressive progress with meeting global climate targets. In 2018, the city’s greenhouse emissions were 28 per cent lower than in 1990, despite a population increase of 150,000. But having previously served as a minister in the Finnish government during the past decade, Vapaavuori had come to the conclusion that the capital could take an even more ambitious approach to climate policy.


In 2018, the City of Helsinki revised the city’s timeline for becoming carbon neutral from 2050 to 2035, and the Carbon Neutral Helsinki Action Plan, a comprehensive emission reduction strategy consisting of 147 different climate actions, was approved by Vapaavuori and the Helsinki City Council.
“We knew that 2050 was not soon enough for us,” says Vapaavuori. “But we also knew that to make this happen by 2035, we would need to make significant improvements in energy production, efficiency of the buildings, and transport. In fact, we decided that every action in Helsinki has to be a climate action.”
Three years on, Vapaavuori’s grand vision for the city has given rise to the Helsinki Energy Challenge, a groundbreaking competition which invites innovators from around the world to devise and submit ideas for decarbonising the city’s heating. With a one million euro prize for the winner, the initiative has the potential to create new clean heating solutions that can subsequently be applied in other global cities.
The Challenge comes at a time when NGOs are calling for cities to take more action to reduce their impact on the environment, citing the many potential long-term benefits. A 2019 report by the Coalition for Urban Transitions estimated that taking steps to become carbon neutral could boost the world’s economy by $2.8 trillion (£2.2tr) in 2030 and $7tr (£5.5tr) in 2050, in cost savings alone. But such action requires considerable upfront investment.


“For Europe to transition to a climate-neutral economy, we need both political commitment and massive investments,” says Valdis Dombrovskis, executive vice-president of the European Commission.
In Vapaavuori’s eyes, Helsinki is a particularly apt location for leading the way in piloting a new form of urban heating. The city has long championed public-private partnerships, enabling the cross-pollination of ideas from different industries, known as the “City as a testbed” policy.
“I think that Helsinki is the optimal city for different kinds of pilots because we’re both big enough to enable tests on a systemic level, but also small and functional enough to really make them happen,” he says.

Helsinki archipelago in winter
Yiping Feng and Ling Ouyang


Like many cities, Helsinki’s current heating system is built around fossil fuels, and the severity of the northern climate means that heating makes up more than half of the city’s total carbon emissions. In 2019, the Finnish government announced that coal would be prohibited as an energy source by 2029, adding urgency to Helsinki’s search for an alternative source of heat. The difference in Helsinki is that it is seeking out a different and more innovative path by beginning a search for the technologies that will form the basis of the economy as the world transitions away from carbon.
“We know, for example, that biomass is not a sustainable solution in the long term,” says Vapaavuori. “So we have decided to ask the rest of the world to help us find a way to replace coal by 2029, hopefully not using biomass or perhaps not even burning anything at all. Biomass products might simply be too valuable to just burn in the future.”
Across Europe, some small scale decarbonisation projects have been attempted in recent years. The Buurtwarmte Paddepoel initiative in the Dutch city of Groningen saw the formation of a neighbourhood energy co-operative to transition the Paddepoel district’s heating supply from coal to local sustainable sources – but Helsinki’s efforts are the first time an entire city has tried to decarbonise its heating.
European Union politicians hope that other cities will follow suit in encouraging such novel innovation. “Cities face all kinds of challenges but they have to take the responsibility for driving climate neutrality,” says Katarzyna Szumielewicz, programme manager at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy.
Vapaavuori and the Challenge organisers are hoping that someone will emerge with a “big idea”, but they anticipate that cross-sector expertise will be needed to solve the urban heating problem. They are encouraging organisations from different spheres of science and technology to enter in collaboration.

Helsinki’s recently opened Oodi Central Library
Tuomas Uusheimo

“The optimal result would be that someone would solve the whole issue, but another option is that the competition will provide us with several smaller innovations which all could contribute to the issue,” says Vapaavuori. “It remains to be seen, and we are open-minded!”
The desire for new ideas means the challenge is open to everyone and anyone – from existing major technology providers, to startups and even students – with a submission deadline of September 30, 2020. Submissions will be evaluated against seven criteria ranging from climate and natural resources impact to cost, implementation schedule, feasibility, reliability and capacity, in order to whittle down the initial entries to a shortlist of three to 15 teams. These finalists will be invited to a bootcamp in Helsinki, before the eventual winner will be selected by an international jury in February 2021.
But while decarbonising Helsinki’s heat production will be a major step in becoming carbon neutral within the next 15 years, the city acknowledges it must set ambitious targets across the board. For example, total heat consumption will have to decrease by 20 per cent, while sales of electric vehicles and hybrids will likely need to rise from 0.7 per cent in 2019 to 30 per cent.
In the eyes of Lukas Hammer, who chairs the Environment Committee in the National Council of Austria, clear goal-setting is vital at both the EU and national levels. “We have to be clear and honest about the decarbonisation of the heating and cooling sector,” he says. “No coal, no natural gas and no oil anymore.”


Helsinki’s targets are ambitious, but Vapaavuori remains bullish that the city can both achieve its goals, and lead the way for the rest of the globe, in taking a more proactive approach towards becoming carbon neutral in a sustainable fashion.
“The Finnish and Helsinki way is that if we promise something, we do it,” he says. “It should not be good enough to have a system which is not sustainable in the long term.”
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