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How Helsinki is using a big cash prize to find a sustainable solution to heating the city

The director of the city’s Energy Challenge explains how they hope to reshape the city’s heating system—and then share the knowledge with the world

How Helsinki is using a big cash prize to find a sustainable solution to heating the city
[Source Photo: Alexandr Bormotin/Unsplash]

In April of this year, the Mayor of Helsinki, Finland, Jan Vapaavuori, launched the Helsinki Energy Challenge, a one million euro reward for anyone who can come up with a solution to get rid of coal in the city’s heating supply, while using as little biomass as possible. A bold ask, we realize. But we have faith someone will come up with the solution.

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Why did we decide to do this?

We knew that climate change is the most critical challenge of our time, and we wanted to find solutions for Helsinki and other cities around the world. We also knew we had to stop using coal-fired heat production in 10 years because of a Finnish law that prohibits the use of coal for energy after this date. And we also recently committed to becoming carbon-neutral by the year 2035. And even more recently, so did the Finnish government: carbon-neutrality for the entire country.

Clearly coal couldn’t remain in our energy mix. So, we decided to launch this challenge.

Creating the right context for a challenge

We had to first make sure the right ingredients were in place for this particular competition.

First, we had plenty of public and political support to shift off coal. All relevant stakeholders—including the state, energy companies, and taxpayers—recognized that urgent action was needed.

Second, we made sure the market was right for experimentation. A decision to deregulate the heating and electricity market was made years ago, making it easier for potential solutions to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

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Third, we were just the right city size. We’re just big enough—with close to 650,000 inhabitants and about 80 square miles of land area—to conduct experiments of this kind. But we’re not too big for efficient implementation of potentially groundbreaking solutions.

Fourth, we’re cold enough. If the energy solution worked here, we knew it’d work anywhere, thus benefiting not just Helsinki and Finland as a whole but other cities, too. In short, it’d have a game-changing ripple effect.

Launching the challenge

Once the ingredients were in place, our mayor mirrored the Helsinki challenge off of New York City’s similar moon shot challenges, with which we’ve been cooperating. This kind of challenge approach makes it possible to come up with truly novel solutions. It’s an effective and innovative way to get the best solutions to the table.

In meeting with experts in climate research and energy technology, in Finland and abroad, as well as organizations known for their innovative approaches, we’ll now construct a sound scientific process to evaluate the entries as best as we can, to make sure the very best solutions are discovered and awarded. And we’ll have a top-notch international jury to make sure the winning solution is decided upon by leading experts in the field.

What solutions will be game changing?

It won’t be biomass, even though people might assume we’ll pick trees since we have plenty of them in Finland.

While the Finnish government’s current Carbon Neutral 2035 Action Plan promotes the use of biomass, the combustion of plant and animal waste, like forest residue, has a sizable climate impact.

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And Mayor Vapaavuori has made it clear that he would prefer to steer things away from even a temporary reliance on biomass. The logistical headache of transporting truckloads of waste to the city center, for example, is something he is eager to avoid.

What we’re hoping for are multiple solutions that can be utilized in tandem to reach the carbon-free target. The ideal mix might include existing and new technologies for heat production, innovative alternative energy sources, and fresh ideas for improved production efficiency.

Going global

If we get the right solution, the benefits to decarbonizing cities everywhere could be priceless. The winning solution could be worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions of euros in the long run.

At the start of the new year, we’ll begin taking applications, and by the end of the year, we hope to have our winner.

We have no intention of keeping all the knowledge that we gather to ourselves. We want to make sure to share the solutions globally. We assume that some solutions might not be relevant for Helsinki but might be appropriate for some other city. So, we’ll definitely share them.

Stay tuned as we find the million-euro fix. These critical climate solutions couldn’t come soon enough.

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Laura Uuttu-Deschryvere is project director of the Helsinki Energy Challenge, City of Helsinki

Helsinki is a member of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a collaboration of leading global cities cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 100% by 2050 or sooner. This is a 10-part series featuring bold actions by cities to accelerate progress toward carbon-neutrality, based on CNCA’s Game Changers Report.

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