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Helsinki Mayor pledges €1m for idea to replace coal-fired energy plants

Jan Vapaavuori said he's serious about a contest to come up with a coal replacement – but preferably not biomass or nuclear – to heat the capital city.

Hanasaaren kivihiilikasa.
Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

The Mayor of Finland's capital launched a campaign on Wednesday aimed at tackling climate change called the Helsinki Challenge competition. During a Helsinki Symposium at City Hall, Mayor Jan Vapaavuori promised one million euros to whoever can devise an energy production method that would replace coal burning for heat in the capital city.

The mayor tweeted: "Helsinki Challenge: A million euros to the person who can develop a solution to replace coal burning in the heating of Helsinki in the most sustainable way possible, using the least biomass. #HelsinkiSymposium"

The Finnish capital has pledged to stop using coal for heating by the year 2029, as Finnish law prohibits using coal for the production of electricity and heat after this date.

"I'm completely serious. We've got 10 years to give up the use of coal, and in a city the size of Helsinki, this is a very large challenge," Vapaavuori said.

Vapaavuori said the solution could be worth tens, if not hundreds of millions of euros. He said the heating should also take place utilizing as little biomass as possible.

"The city feels it is sensible that an unsustainable fuel like coal is not replaced with another questionable fuel like biomass," the mayor proclaimed.

Official contest opens in autumn

The Helsinki Challenge will be officially launched in the autumn. Vapaavuori foresees that an international panel of experts will be selected to act as the competition's jury.

Vapaavuori said it is unlikely that one solution alone will be able to replace coal as a city heating source. A combination of existing technology, improved energy efficiency and something new will likely be the best choice.

The mayor also indicated that nuclear would not necessarily have a role in the new solution, either.

"If I knew what I wanted, I wouldn't have had to launch this kind of competition. We are giving the challenge a global reach for just this reason, because there isn't an easy solution to this," he said.

Vapaavuori says that the competition was also introduced because the city doesn't want to end up using a poor temporary solution. He said that new production facilities that rely on biomass products such as wood pellets create zoning and logistics problems.

"We know how hard it is to plan new plants within existing city structures. We know what a big operation it will be if tens or hundreds of lorry loads of fuel are trucked in every day. We want to avoid all this," he said.

Helen already investing in alternatives

Helsinki's city-owned power utility Helen, says half of its energy is currently produced with coal, but says it has plans to close its coal-fired Hanasaari power plant by the end of 2024. Taking the plant off the grid will remove 400 MW of heat production capacity, Helen says.

The company reports that it had already built 114 MW of alternative energy production in the form of a new wood pellet-fired heating plant in Salmisaari, and a new underground heating and cooling plant under the Esplanade Park in the city centre. Helen has also installed several solar facilities.

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