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Helsinki offers million-euro prize for carbon-neutral heating solution

Cities such as Toronto, Leeds and Amsterdam plan to make use of the results of the Helsinki contest.

salmisaari voimala helen torni näkymä maisema helsinki lauttasaari
Helsinki is looking for ways to replace the Salmisaari coal-fired plant, which is to be shut down within a few years. Image: Vesa Marttinen / Yle

The city of Helsinki has thrown down a challenge to innovators and experts to come up with sustainable heat generation solutions for a large urban area. On Thursday the city launched the international Helsinki Energy Challenge competition, which has a main prize of one million euros. The contest was announced last spring by Mayor Jan Vapaavuori.

The competition poses the question: "How can we decarbonise the heating of Helsinki, using as little biomass as possible?"

Helsinki has committed to become carbon neutral by 2035.

Helsinki officials say they hope the capital can serve as a platform for new, innovative energy solutions. They point out that cities must play a decisive role in efforts to contain the climate crisis, as more than half of the world's population lives in urban areas.

Cities consume more than two-thirds of the world's energy and are responsible for more than 70 percent of world CO2 emissions.

About 56 percent of Helsinki's CO2 emissions come from heating, so finding a sustainable way of keeping buildings warm in the winter is essential in order to cut the city's pollution output.

Last summer, Helsinki's population surpassed 650,000, while that of the capital region exceeded 1.5 million.

"The Helsinki Energy Challenge seeks concrete solutions to Helsinki's heating challenge, but also to the broader energy question worldwide. Finding a solution won't be simple, but we can get further in cooperation with our international partners than alone," Vapaavuori said on Thursday.

Two-stage contest

The competition is calling for solutions through which the city can heat its buildings sustainably for decades, without the use of biomass, beginning by 2029.

The proposals will be weighed according to their impact on the climate and natural resources, as well as costs, implementation schedules, feasibility, security of supply and capacity.

The jury will be made up of independent international experts.

The deadline for Challenge applications is 31 May, with finalist teams to be named on 2 July. They will be invited to a 'boot camp' in Helsinki in early September ahead of the 30 September deadline for final competition entries.

The winner will be announced on 24 November.

Several other cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, Amsterdam and Leeds, are officially supporting the project and say they hope to make use of its results in their own climate strategies.

The World Economic Forum and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group are also helping Helsinki to plan the competition and have promised to share its results with other cities.

About 20 percent of Finland's district heating is produced in Helsinki. More than half of the city's heating energy is now generated by burning coal, which will be banned in Finland as of May 2029.

The Hanasaari coal-fired plant will be closed by 2024, with coal use at the city's other main generating plant, Salmisaari, to end by 2029.

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