October 19, 2020

DO I KNOW YOU? “I believe and hope these exceptional times will boost combat against climate change,” says Jukka Leskelä

collage of Jukka Leskelä and various elements
A major sustainable breakthrough that occurred years ago in Finnish energy industry, has had a tremendous personal importance to Jukka Leskelä, the managing director of Finnish Energy.
Julia Bushueva

According to Jukka Leskelä, the best part of being the frontman of the energy sector is to speak out for change and break the preconception that the industry is acting as an obstacle to an energy revolution. 

The buzzword ‘energy revolution’ is frequently applied to the transition period in which we find ourselves, a massive sustainable energy overhaul in which the world is leapfrogging into new ways of production and energy systems. 

The rapid phasing out of fossil fuels to combat climate change means the energy systems of the future will be progressively based on renewable energy and the circular economy. The role of energy in society is so great that the revolution affects us all, but, being an extensive entity, it can be difficult to get a grasp of.

For Jukka Leskelä, however, the transition to a sustainable and clean era is something he has been readying himself for, for his entire career. From the moment when he first started writing his master’s thesis on emissions control and environmental technology to now, as the managing director at Finnish Energy, a branch association of power, district heating and gas companies in Finland, Leskilä has cultivated a strong interest and specialities in climate change and environmental policy issues. 

Now, with the existential pondering prompted by the pandemic underlining the need for a sustainable future, what lies ahead for energy creation? 

Read on to discover where Leskelä’s enthusiasm for the environment comes from, what opportunities the energy revolution provides for the Finnish energy industry, how the pandemic might help fixing the climate and much more. 

You have based your career on solving energy, environment and climate change questions. Where does your focus on these areas come from?

Ever since I was just a schoolboy, I have been keen on environmental questions, nature and birds especially. Being a native of Valkeakoski, which is a typical small town built around a paper mill in the centre of Finland’s Lakeland, the presence of the factory and the environmental issues related to it were a part of the daily life for me. At some point I got a – maybe a little naive – vision to find an occupation where I could reconcile environmental disagreements with nature. This has been the background of my career journey. 

Now you are leading the Finnish Energy, a branch organisation for the industrial and labour market policy of the energy sector with 270 market actors as its members. How would you describe the work the association does?

Simply put, our job is to communicate the perspectives of our member companies to decision-makers. In addition to this, we also look for, produce and offer solutions that facilitate society to achieve its goals regarding emissions reduction for example, but, at the same time, enable sufficient operating conditions for businesses in our sector. 

And what is your role in this entity?

I consider myself having a bit of a dual role similar to that of a manager of a football team. I am the face of the team and represent the energy sector as a whole; that involves a great variety of tasks from explaining ourselves at different tables to giving interviews like this one.  

On the other hand, it is my duty to make the organisation and the entire energy sector perform as well as possible. There are a lot of passions and perspectives related to the sector, of which climate change is currently a central and important theme, but energy availability and security, costs and security of supply are also major societal questions. It is a big and constant part of our work to give input on these matters. We have to be proactive in taking a stand while responding to the initiatives that come from society, which there are plenty of, such as new legislative efforts and the position, direction and policies of the energy sector. In the midst of all this, I do my best to navigate this team forward. 

You have been following the industry in Finland closely for decades. How has it evolved during that time?

In recent decades, development on the energy-production side has been enormous, especially the mindset shift, which gives me great satisfaction. At the beginning of the millennium, the energy sector was still a very traditional smokestack industry that seemed to be very stable, and there were no reasons to believe the operations wouldn’t continue as before. However, quite rapidly actually, attitudes towards climate change started to change significantly. It began to be seen that for techno-economic reasons, as well as because of climate, energy and environmental policy changes, the sector had to find ways to become more sustainable. We started working on this as early as 15 years ago, and the results have been great. Emissions from energy production have halved in the last 10 years and will halve again by 2030, once companies get the resources to make the necessary investments designed to reduce emissions and adopt more sustainable technologies. Whether or not Finland will achieve its goal to become a carbon-neutral nation by 2035 will not be dependent on the energy sector’s efforts. 

Another major transition has happened in the ways businesses see their customers, as the importance of the customer interface has increased. If we simplify a little, traditionally energy companies have sent hot water, electricity and bills to their customers, hoping the customers won’t bother them. Nowadays, when customers are investing in energy systems such as heat pumps, solar panels and electric cars, this traditional approach is being replaced by companies solving customers’ energy needs in new ways by creating more and more services around different energy systems. 

The energy industry has clearly taken the need for change seriously. You mentioned that it is possible to reduce emissions even more by adopting new sustainable technologies. What are those?

As one of the biggest and prominent trends in the industry has been a switch in electricity production, where renewable wind and solar energy in particular have developed in leaps and bounds, the next big trend is related to gases. I find it very interesting to see how the gas sector will contribute to the energy transition, as renewable green, clean and synthetic gases and fuels can be utilised to replace their fossil counterparts and lower the impact on the climate.  

One of the most fascinating themes is the different applications of renewable hydrogen. While hydrogen is already used in oil refining, for example, it is currently made from natural gas. Now there are many kinds of attempts aiming to create renewable solutions, such as power-to-X process that Wärtsilä and Soletair Power are working with. There, an electrolyser is used to produce hydrogen from water, and this hydrogen is turned into fuels for transport or methane. Besides hydrogen, these fuels need carbon dioxide as their raw material, which could be taken from the flue gases of the forest industry, for instance. This would be a great circular economy solution to reuse biological carbon. Another example of the use of renewable hydrogen is it could replace coke as a fuel in steel production. SSAB are currently working on this, and they have a pilot starting up in Sweden just now. If it plays out well, hydrogen-powered steel production could be built in SSAB’s Raahe facilities by the end of the decade. 

Furthermore, we are intensifying our co-operation in Finland in order to enhance hydrogen developments. Together with other industry associations, Finnish Energy is right now setting up a Finnish hydrogen cluster. Neste, a renewable fuels and oil refining company, for example, has an interest in fostering its own carbon neutrality, and the cluster could provide a suitable ecosystem for this aim. 

These are very topical matters, indeed. Another factor greatly influencing this very time we are in is the pandemic that is generating uncertainty and disruptions in many fields. Do you think the coronavirus will curb climate change or speed it up?

I’m an optimist; that is, I believe and hope these exceptional times will boost the combat against climate change. I like to think that change is always an opportunity. The changes in people’s ways to think about travelling and mobility may remain permanent, which can help the positive development and open up new opportunities. And as people travel less, the use of oil has decreased. The industry has long speculated and waited for oil consumption to start declining globally. I believe that this will remain a permanent change. 

With a strong R&D sector and knowhow in Finland, what are the best solutions and tools bred here that can be used to fix climate change?

Three technology areas come to my mind especially when thinking of Finnish expertise. The effective use of difficult recycle fractions, basically meaning different biofuels as energy sources, has long been mastered in Finland. For example Ahlström and Valmet have been some of the trailblazers developing a circular-economy innovation called fluidised bed technology that is now widely used all over to use waste fractions ranging from olive stones to tea plantation biomass leftovers for energy. 

Another interesting field of expertise can be found in district heating solutions. While district heating is not unique to Finland, our district heating network is. It offers great new possibilities to facilitate the energy revolution, because successful energy co-operation between industries and communities goes way back here. In fact, this kind of collaboration has its own term, a new buzzword: sector integration. The European Union has its own sector integration strategy, in which electricity, heating, gas, transport and industrial energy systems converge, allowing each other’s flexibility to be used efficiently. Finland is in a very good position to lead the way and provide its design expertise, as the extensive district heating networks are already in place, providing an extraordinary ready-made infrastructure for the transfer of differently produced heat. For example, waste heat from data centres, cities or industry can be easily transferred to the locations that need it while reducing the need to use extra fuels for heating. In addition, sometimes a lot of renewable electricity generated, for example wind power in windy weather, temporarily lowers the price of electricity. In these cases, electricity can be used to generate heat for the district heating system. 

Additionally, there is an ongoing transition to a system where all energy consumption can be measured and controlled in real time. This has spurred a newer area of expertise for Finns, smart grid solutions, and Finland is already the world leader when it comes to smart meters. These new solutions consist of a wide range of applications and services, some of which are related to automatic control of houses, industrial-scale energy systems and charging electric cars. A great example is Virta, which offers a smart electric-vehicle charging platform that is able to negotiate in real time with the electricity market price. In other words, the car is automatically being charged when electricity is at its cheapest. 

What is your number one tip for all of us to combat climate change?

My approach to the debate on climate change is that the responsibility for combating climate change must not be allocated on citizens through guilt. Instead, it is companies that need to make the effort, while society has to assume responsibility for providing the companies with a framework that makes this combat possible. 

But of course, people need to be given the opportunity to do their bit and to make the right choices. On that basis, my advice could be that I encourage everyone to find out about their own carbon footprint. There are plenty of online carbon footprint calculators which can be used to get information about what causes emissions in my own consumption and behaviour. One can then try to ponder whether one could do some things differently. These calculators often provide practical advice and ideas. 

You have had a significant career in the energy sector. What have been the most rewarding or exciting parts of your career to date?

I am proud to see how well our member companies have grasped the need for change all across the industry. Related to this, one of the major positive experiences is that I feel I have been a big part of this mental transformation our sector has gone through. As early as in 2009, Finnish Energy published a vision for how the energy sector would become carbon neutral in 2050. The process and the outcomes of this vision turned the industry’s mindset concerning climate change and policies from restrictive and problem-centric to opportunity seeking and solution-centric! 

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Building trust. What I mean is that there is a lot of confrontation in society, and many think that companies are only concerned about money. I find this kind of prejudice in the energy sector especially. Although we have trust in society per se, it seems difficult for many to believe that we are engaged in solving climate problems and committed to environmental goals. Indeed, we call for an active climate policy and for legislation in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. Communicating this is an astonishingly big part of my job, and it is at the same time very demanding and gratifying.  

You are active in a sports club association in your free time. This goes well with the fact that you have been participating in various associations and organisations for work – How did you find your calling to make an impact this way?

One could say that I am an association person by nature, and I get involved in different things quite easily. Long time ago, my son got excited about athletics and, while following and supporting him in his hobby, I got involved in the activities of Nurmijärvi Athletics Club, which is the franchise in my home town, where I have lived now some 25 years. The funny part is that my son quit years ago, but I stayed. I previously served as the chairperson of the club, but, in recent years, I’ve taken part in its activities with a lower profile. 

I find track and field to be a very positive environment, where I get a lot from joy observing the children and youth genuinely rejoicing about not only their own, but also their competitors’ performances and success. It is also very rewarding to organise and carry out an athletics competition. It has a surprising number of matters needed to be taken into account and dealt with, and it requires a huge number of organisers and volunteers. Much more than, say, a football match. 

To counterbalance work, you do bird watching. What is your ultimate observation location?

Our family has a jointly owned summer cottage on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia together with other relatives. When spending time in the great outdoors there, I’m practically on a constant bird-watching trip. Even though I am a landlubber by birth, the seaside scenery and the open sea combined with amazing nature is the kind of place I always want to return to. 

Text and interview: Tuomas Koivisto 

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