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Finnish endeavours tackle hurdles to sustainable urban life

With cities accounting for almost 80 per cent of energy and 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, their sustainability efforts could have an outsized impact globally.

Jussi Hellstén

A number of projects, along with Finnish companies of all sizes, have set out to pave the way for sustainable cities, tackling challenges in energy, transport and built environment.

Business Finland in April announced the launch of a programme to develop comprehensive carbon-neutral solutions for cities across the globe.

The five-year programme will facilitate long-term co-operation with cities, companies, researchers and other stakeholders in other parts of the world in networks committed to solving urban carbon-neutrality problems.

Supporting the sustainability efforts of cities could have a substantial global impact, with cities consuming almost 80 per cent of energy and accounting for over 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. While many European cities have adopted the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030 or 2035, questions persist about their ability to achieve the necessary emission cuts especially in the areas of energy, transport and built environment.

A collaborative and multidisciplinary approach is a prerequisite to solving such challenges, according to Nina Kopola, director general of Business Finland.

“Cities are not looking for small partial solutions – they are looking for comprehensive solutions that individual companies cannot offer. We will be able to combine expertise and offer cities multidisciplinary solutions globally,” she stated.

Cities are finding it difficult to generate the emission reductions necessitated by their climate pledges particularly in the areas of energy, transport and built environment.

Jiyoung Kim / Pexels

Outi Suomi, programme manager at Business Finland, added that cities have the potential to have an impact on carbon-neutrality efforts that extends beyond their own emission reductions.

“Cities are important decision makers in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. They can shape the market and provide test beds for new innovative solutions. Cities are becoming hubs for planning, developing and piloting climate-smart solutions,” explained Suomi.

The programme is expected to generate three billion euros in new export revenue for Finland.

Business Finland in March reported that it has allocated 2.1 million euros to another project focusing on carbon-neutrality in urban environments, DataMust. Increasing the total project budget to 4.1 million euros, the injection was granted through the Recovery and Resilience Facility.

The project will seek to develop a marketplace based on edge computing – or, local processing – for the vast amount of data generated by sensors that measure aspects such as temperature and air quality in urban environments. Presently the data is not utilised particularly efficiently as much of it is sent needlessly to the cloud for data centres to crunch – an energy-intensive process compared to using more conventional but sufficiently capable computing technologies.

Developing a more sustainable alternative to conventional concrete is at a priority for many companies looking to reduce the environmental burden of the built environment.

Pixabay / Pexels

Data centres already gobble up three per cent of the energy produced around the world.

“In practice, we use the funding to develop solutions that improve the energy efficiency of the built environment and data processing,” said Maija Federley, project leader at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

“Urban carbon neutrality goals require more extensive sharing and utilisation of data,” she added. “The energy consumption of digital infrastructure will be reduced by using data locally without transferring it to cloud services. Both goals are based on the concept of a decentralised and local data marketplace and the related data processing services.”

Federley acknowledged that mutual trust between the operators is key for data sharing.

The backbone of the project is duly Nokia’s Data Marketplace, a blockchain-secured marketplace that only processes the contracts between the buyers and sellers of data – not the data itself.

“Organisations cling to their own data unnecessarily,” lamented Juha Salmelin, leader at Nokia. “Often this benefits no one. This is why companies need to understand and have a model of what data can be shared and what is worth sharing in the first place. Companies need to see how data can benefit them in the long term and which data can be obtained elsewhere.”

Building cleaner

In Finland, companies big and small have turned their attention to decarbonisation solutions for the built environment, the source of 39 per cent of gross annual carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, according to the UN.

Metsä Wood and Sweden’s Heidelberg Materials in April embarked on a collaborative project to develop and bring to market a hybrid construction element with a roughly 70-per-cent smaller carbon footprint than conventional concrete – without any compromises on strength or durability. The element will have a sandwich construction, with the load-bearing core made of a laminated veneer panel developed by Metsä Wood and the external panel of climate-friendlier concrete by Heidelberg Materials.

“By developing a hybrid element, we want to see how the different technical properties of wood and concrete can work together to support each other in building structures,” said Jussi Björman, head of construction at Metsä Wood.

The element will be suitable for facade walls and highly resistant to wind and weather.

The partners have already built a prototype and cast smaller elements to verify the manufacturing technology in Norrtälje, Sweden. The next step, to be taken by the end of this year, is to construct a test building to evaluate the design possibilities, and the element’s response to moisture and various forces.

Carbonaide, a Joensuu-based spin-out from VTT, revealed earlier this spring that it has raised 1.8 million euros for building a pilot production line with the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of concrete – to the point of making the material carbon negative.

The production line is based on an effective carbonation method that forces carbon dioxide into precast concrete through an automated process taking place at atmospheric pressure. The process generates emission reductions in two ways: by requiring less cement and mineralising carbon dioxide into the concrete.

Led by Lakan Betoni and Vantaa Energy, the funding round will enable the startup to demonstrate the potential of the production technology at full scale, said Tapio Vehmas, CEO of Carbonaide.

Vehmas reminded that the startup has already demonstrated that the technology is capable of reducing the carbon dioxide emissions of conventional concrete by 45 per cent and achieving a carbon footprint of -60 kilos per square metre by using slag instead of Portland cement, the most common type of general-purpose cement in the world. The long-term goal is to produce cement that traps more carbon dioxide than it emits throughout its lifetime.

The built environment serving as a carbon sink would be “natural” as it represents the largest proportion of man-made materials, added Vehmas.

Carbonaide has laid out plans to open 10 operational units in the Nordics by 2026. Its hope is to bind approximately 500 megatons of carbon dioxide a year by 2050, corresponding to 10–20 per cent of the concrete market.

Jussi Palola, CEO of Virta, says the Finnish charging platform provider is ready to take the lead in making electric vehicles an integral part of energy flexibility.

Ville Vappula / Virta

Moving cleaner

In the transport sector, decarbonisation hopes have been vested largely in electrification and hydrogen-based solutions.

Virta in April reported that it has secured 85 million euros in funding for expanding its platform of electric vehicle charge points and vehicle-to-grid technology. Over three-quarters, or 65 million euros, of the total was provided by existing investors including E.On, Helen Ventures, Finnish Industry Investment (Tesi) and Vertex Growth Fund. The remaining 20 million euros was provided by Business Finland.

The Helsinki-based company has stated that more than 1 000 businesses in 35 countries operate their charging services on its platforms, making the platform one of the largest public charging networks in Europe.

The funding, it added, will enable it to support more than five times as many charging transactions in Europe and the Asia-Pacific by 2025. The amount of energy contained in batteries on the platform is thus projected to rise from around 2 000 to 12–15 000 megawatts, assuming that vehicle batteries account for up to 90 per cent of the total battery storage capacity in Europe by 2030.

Connecting the capacity to the grid and adjusting vehicle-charging consumption in real time are some of the most important enablers of the green energy transition, lower electricity costs and greater resilience of energy systems.

“With the new funding, we are now ready to take the global lead in making EVs an integral part of energy flexibility markets,” stated Jussi Palola, CEO of Virta.

Fortum in March reported it has entered into a partnership with ZeroAvia, a British-American developer of hydrogen-electric aircraft.

The partners will explore ways to develop hydrogen production and re-fuelling infrastructure at airports with a view to building a network of zero-emission flight routes and removing emissions from both flights and airports. The infrastructure, they pointed out, can also support complimentary transport services, such as heavy-duty lorries and materials handling equipment.

The project is to be carried out at “relevant” but unspecified airports.

ZeroAvia has demonstrated the potential of hydrogen-electric flights with HyFlyer, a series of projects kicked off a couple of years ago to decarbonise small passenger aircraft. Fortum, meanwhile, is a novice in the aviation space but set up a hydrogen development team a couple of years ago and seeks to become a key provider of smart and agile decarbonisation solutions in the hydrogen economy.

The Finnish majority state-owned energy company said it will make decisions on possible investments related to the project at a later stage.

By: Aleksi Teivainen